Search the most comprehensive database of interviews and book signings from Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson and the rest of Team Jordan.
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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"On the one hand, I'm flattered. On the other, I would have to say it's overplayed. On the third hand, Tolkien encompassed so much in The Lord of the Rings and other books that he did for fantasy what Beethoven did for music.
"For a long time, it was believed that no one did anything that did not build on Beethoven. For his part, Tolkien did provide a foundation while himself building on an existing tradition. Although it's difficult now to forge a singular place in this foundation, people like Stephen R. Donaldson are doing it. I hope I am as well."
Big Wheel: Our Interview with Robert Jordan (Amazon.com)
Robert Jordan—Citadel graduate, decorated Vietnam veteran, and physicist by education—is only steps away from Tolkien as the most popular fantasy author in history. His bestselling Wheel of Time series tells the story of a world broken into a male-female duality. Women wield the One Power, safeguarding it against the darkness until the male Dragon Reborn appears as foretold by prophecy. Each of the eight (so far) books in the series is a complex, detailed history of a fully realized culture. Enthusiastic readers have filled our pages with their comments, and Web sites around the world extol the virtues of Jordan and his creations. Amazon.com's Therese Littleton spoke with Jordan about his fans, his books, and his inspirations.
The Wheel of Time has been called the best fantasy epic of all time, and you've been compared with legendary fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien. How do you deal with all this adulation?
I grin nervously a lot. It's very nice. But my high school football coach gave me one of the best pieces of advice that someone in my position can have. He said, "Saturday morning, you can read the newspaper and you can believe how good they say you are. Monday, when you come to practice, nobody knows your name, and you have one week to get ready for the only game you'll ever have to make a reputation." So it's very nice to look around and have people pat me on the back and say, "Oh, you're wonderful, you're great, you're tremendous," but I know the end of this. I go and sit in front of the computer, and nobody knows my name, and I have one book to try and make a reputation.
His is a vivid daydream, alive on paper. Not an alternate reality.
For those who suspect Robert Jordan is so consumed by his books, so immersed in their universe that the fanciful has more substance than the tangible, be assured this is not the case.
He still takes out the garbage. And no fictional creations attend him as he does so.
The books of his "Wheel of Time" fantasy cycle may possess prodigious detail, and characters who seem to breathe on the page, but the author recognizes the warp and woof of the real quite well, thank you, and embraces the knowledge that, in time, the party will come to an end.
The Charleston native is as grounded as one of the most successful writers in the world can be. Hyperbole? Do millions read your books with the same fervor accorded Tolkien? Do 500 people a day show up for your book signings, from Sacramento to Sydney? Are your novels translated into 20 languages? Are you the standard-bearer for a major publishing company? Are there thousands of Web sites devoted in whole or in part to discussing your work?
We thought not.
Of course, RJ denied that, and said that after he had handed in The Eye of the World, he was asked to provide a map. "Why do you need a map?" RJ asked, and he was told, "Tom Doherty likes maps." So, RJ slapped a couple pieces of paper together and drew in the mountains, then scattered the countries around, added some cities rivers and other geographical features and sent it off to Tor. Tor revised it a number of times until Elise Mitchell produced the version that became part of The Eye of the World. RJ also stated that if you look at a map of southwestern Saudi Arabia you'll see two mountain ranges that intersect at right angles.
When asked how aware of geography he was while writing, RJ said that he created the city maps whole, but only roughed out the larger ones. The bigger ones were then polished by the people at Tor before being printed in the books. I took it to mean that he wasn't all that concerned with larger geographic features, which might explain some of the geographic discrepencies in the story.
Also for Mr Mashadar, I think, my favorite fantasy novel is The Lord of the Rings, hands down. The largest effect that it had on my writing was a desire to be the flip side of the coin, to take the comfortable old tropes and put a different spin on them. Also, the creation of paradox is one source of balefire's danger. Remember that in the War of the Shadow, even the forces of the Shadow gave up using it because of the fear that reality itself might unravel.
There are readers, and then there are fans. Readers offer condolences when a favorite author falls ill. Fans offer bone marrow.
Robert Jordan, author of the best-selling Wheel of Time series, has fans. And if you want to understand them, take a look at his blog. Since last spring, when he announced he had a rare blood disease called amyloidosis, Jordan, 58, has been chronicling his life-and-death struggle online. Whenever he's well enough to write, he thanks the fans who sent care packages, and those who donated to the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., where he is being treated. Then there's this:
"For Jaime Platt and her sister, your offer touches me deeply. They were able to harvest enough of my own bone marrow stem cells that I don't need marrow donation from elsewhere, but thank you very much. That was a kind and generous offer."
And you thought Harry Potter fans were enthusiastic?
Jordan's readers are offering help because they've developed a close connection with him through his books. They're also desperately hoping he lives to finish the series. Wheel of Time is like Lord of the Rings on steroids. Since Jordan launched the series in 1990, he's added another ten books, and more than 14 million copies have sold. Fans are patiently waiting for book No. 12, A Memory of Light, which Jordan promises will be the last, even if it reaches 2,000 pages.
"I've told people you might need a forklift to get it out the door," says Jordan, speaking by phone from his home in South Carolina.
The memorial dedication was begun by a brief introduction of the event from Angie LeClercq, the Director of the Library. The introduction of the panel was made by our own Harriet. Sitting with her were Michael Livingston (Assistant Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel), Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) and Dave Drake (Hammer Slammers series, Lord of the Isles series and at least 60 other books).
Michael Livingston began by offering what he thought Jim had meant to literature. He compared the body of writers to that of waves on the ocean with peaks and troughs, with the last peak being JRR Tolkien. After him there was a long period in the trough of the wave, then came Jordan. Brandon then waded in with the impact Jordan had upon him as a 15 year old reading fantasy for the first time. He said that his parents were directing him towards Chemistry and Medical School. But Jordan's fantasy world hooked him so much that he too wanted to write. But every time he'd try something, he'd say to himself, "I can't. Jordan already did that." (For you writers of the future out there, Brandon wrote 12 books before getting one published. Never quit.)
This prompted questions about Jordan's impact on other writers, "were there people following his style?" I think you all know the answer to that question, there are many. Dave Drake added the observation that there are those who write about something and there are those who write about something that they know because they've lived it. He used his own experience from Vietnam to illustrate his point. He said that when you read Jordan you are privy to Jordan's experiences. The question was asked about who might be the next wave peak. Brandon offered a wonderful bit of insight. It won't be someone who imitates another's work. Brandon said that the one(s) who get it right will look not at what Jordan did, but how he did it. If they are successful in applying the method to their own experience, then we may see the next great writer.
Is there any information about Way of Kings that you can give us at this time?
I've wanted to do a long epic for a while. I guess that's what comes from reading Jordan and the others while growing up. And so, way back in the late 90's—when I was experimenting with my style—I started working on ideas for a longer form series. I knew the real trick for me would be to do it in a way that it didn't feel stale after just a few books; there needed to be enough to the world, the magic, and the plot arcs that I (and hopefully readers) would keep interested in the series for such a long time.
What it gives me (the thing that I want in doing a longer epic) is the chance to grow characters across a larger number of books. Dig into their pasts, explore what makes them think the way they do, in ways that even a trilogy cannot. In Kings, I don't want to do a longer 'saga' style series, with each book having a new set of characters. I want this to be one overarching story.
One of the things that has itched at me for long time in my fantasy reading is the sense of loss that so many fantasy series have. I'm not complaining, mind you—I love these books. But it seems like a theme in a large number of fantasy books is the disappearance of magic and wonder from the world. In Tolkien, the Elves are leaving. In Jordan, technology is growing and perhaps beginning an age where it will overshadow magic. It's very present in Brooks, where the fantasy world is becoming our world. Even Eddings seemed to have it, with a sense that sorcerers are less common, and with things like the only Dragons dying, the gods leaving.
I've wanted to do a series, then, where the magic isn't going away—it's coming back. Where the world is becoming a more wondrous place. Where new races aren't vanishing, they're being discovered.
Obviously, I'm not the first to approach a fantasy this way. Maybe I'm reading too much into the other books, seeing something that isn't there. But the return of magic is one of the main concepts that is driving me.
Well, that and enormous swords and magical power armor.
No, but I'd like to.
We're in a little better shape. Jim actually finished scenes. We have a lot more to work with. He wrote the end himself! He left landmarks to follow from here to the end. Not specific details, just "strong stuff" to get us to the end.
"There are no characters that we don't know how they end up."
I can. You don't grow up reading Robert Jordan and Melanie Rawn and all of these people who've done large epic series without wanting to do one yourself. I started planning a large epic of my own many years ago, and finding a publisher and convincing them to take a chance on me is very difficult: the longer your book is, the more ambitious, the more hesitant they are—and rightly so, because that can fail. You know, the high opportunity for success also generally means great opportunity for failure. And so this was a book I actually sent to Tor, and they said: "This isn't the right time for this, it's not the right time in your career for this", which was okay. So it's been brewing for a long time; it's dealing with a lot of themes and concepts that I wanted to deal with for a long time.
And again it comes back to me trying to look at where fantasy can go, not where it's been. A lot of fantasy seems to be very static: the technology doesn't change, the world doesn't change. It's been thousands of years in these fantasy worlds, and there's been no evolution of culture, or technology or anything like this: it's always been that way, and it will always remain that way—which bothers me a lot. It's not realistic, but it also does not give a lot of opportunity for conflict and change and the exploration of that sort of thing.
The Way of Kings is many things: it's about the dawning of essentially an era of Renaissance, a magical Renaissance, exploration of what magic can do, and the conflicts of magic and technology. But that is actually kind of the background of the series, and in the first book it's much more personal. It's about a young man who was trained as a surgeon by his father, who gets recruited against his will, essentially, into a terrible war. And it's about the conflict between having been taught to heal and then being trained to kill. And what does that do to a person? How do you protect, who can you protect, and who can you heal, when your entire life is about fighting for your life or killing other people? And that really drives him. It's also a story about a young woman who is based a little bit on a mix between Darwin and Pliny the Elder, a natural historian who's kind of at the advent of this Renaissance, this beginning of a magical technology revolution, and her life and experience. It's both of those characters: it's about the characters.
It's so hard to explain a book this large, because if I start talking about the large-scale concepts, those don't even appear in the first book; they're just hinted at.
But one of the other things about The Way of Kings that I like to talk about is that I want to see, again, where the genre can go, and I've been pushing for a lot more art. Scott Westerfeld did a very interesting book that included a lot of art recently; it's kind of a half-graphic novel. I wanted, with Way of Kings, to do something like that. If you read Tolkien: Tolkien had a map, and this map had a purpose. If you looked in the book it was a map that the characters actually carried; it was part of the world. And the map has actually, for a fantasy novel, become something of a cliché: you open it up, there's a map, okay. But I don't like that because it's just there: where did this map come from, what does it represent? I want everything to be a piece of the story.
So I wanted to include a lot of art that was pieces of the story: sketchbooks from one of the characters' notebooks, illuminated manuscript pages from a manuscript they're reading—these sorts of things, so when you read you can see their culture in the art. I've been very excited about it.
There will be more art in future Stormlight Archive books. I'm very pleased with how it turned out, and I think adding a visual aspect to novels helps create a more complete and immersive experience. You'll notice that art has been important to one extent or another in all of my books. Elantris had its map and the Aons; Mistborn had its maps and the Steel Alphabet. The Rithmatist, when it comes out in 2012, will have extensive magic system diagrams with every chapter.
Including a map in a fantasy book has become a bit of a cliché ever since Tolkien did it. But if you go back and look at what Tolkien actually did, the map that was in the book was an in-world artifact—it was something the characters carried around with them and used. So I've approached the art in my books in a similar manner. Each piece represents something that is made and used by the people in the world of the books. I think that helps give a richer feel to the world I'm creating.
One thing you probably won't see me doing in future novels is including character art. I want to leave exactly how characters look up to the imagination of the reader. But I'm a big fan of the sequential art storytelling form as well, so you'll likely see me do some completely graphic novels in the future.
My friend and I read Mistborn when we first heard you were going to take over on The Wheel of Time. We've been hooked ever since and you are definitely one of our top authors now.
The friend I spoke of grew up in a Mormon household, as did my wife, and both of them say that a lot of your work seems to borrow or at least use ideas from the Mormon idea of an afterlife as building blocks. Are those just similarities or is your world building influenced heavily by those ideas?
Most of what people are noticing isn't so much intentional as inevitable. Just like people see WWII influences in Tolkien (though he denied that there were such parallels) there are going to be LDS parallels in my books.
I don't seek to expunge them; they are part of who I am. If I'm reaching into mythology and history for my foundations, I'm going to dip into LDS sources more often than others. So tell your friend and wife that they're seeing real things, most likely—though it's not intentional allegory.
A couple of reasons. Those are really two questions. Why did I avoid the standard tropes? For a long time I've felt that epic fantasy has relied too much on Tolkien, who did a wonderful job, but I feel that rather than doing what he did by creating races and mythologies and worlds of our own we've in some ways allowed ourselves to be strongly influenced by him and relied on some of the work he did. In other cases those tropes have just been overplayed and overdone by people who were very good writers and knew what they were doing. I certainly don't want to point any fingers at people like Stephen Donaldson who wrote brilliant books making use of some of the familiar tropes from Tolkien, but one of the things to remember is that when he did that they weren't familiar tropes. They were still fresh and new. The same can be said for Terry Brooks. I'm sure if I were writing back then that's what I would have done too, because we were still exploring the genre and trying to decide where it was going to go and what epic fantasy was and meant. But I feel that I belong to the generation after that. There was the generation who relied a lot on Tolkien and the generation who grew up reading those authors' books, and a lot of us in my generation of writers seem like we are reacting against the previous generations by saying, "Okay, that's been done, and you did a good job. Where else can we take this?" I have no interest in writing about elves or dwarves or any of these things that have been explored for the last four decades in intricate detail. I want to go my own directions.
But personally, why do I include the races that I include? I'm just looking for interesting things that complement the story that I'm telling. The races in The Way of Kings come directly into the story and the mystery of what's happened before. If you pay close attention to what the races are, it tells you something about what's going to happen in the future and what's happened in the past. It's very conscious. This is just me trying to explore.
I feel that epic fantasy as a genre has not yet hit its golden age yet. If you look at science fiction as a genre, science fiction very quickly got into extrapolating very interesting and different sorts of things. Fantasy, particularly in the late '90s, feels like it hit a bit of a rut where the same old things were happening again and again. We saw the same stories being told, we saw the same races show up, we saw variations only in the names for those races. For me as a reader, it was a little bit frustrating because I read this and felt that fantasy should be the genre that should be able to do anything. It should be the most imaginative genre. It should not be the genre where you expect the same stories and the same creatures. If we want to approach the heights of great storytelling and take it a few more steps so that we don't just copy what Tolkien did, we do what Tolkien did, which is look to the lore ourselves and build our own extrapolations. This is playing into what I like as a reader and my own personal philosophies and hobby horses, but it really just comes down to what I think makes the best story.
Oh boy. This is something I have talked about quite a bit from time to time. I wrote a whole essay on it here: http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/22/
Recently, the New York Times had a review of Martin's A Dance with Dragons which declared that it was far better than the Lord of the Rings and that Tolkien was dead. Tolkien is the measuring stick that everyone uses. In some ways he shouldn't be, because the fantasy genre has so much potential beyond just being like what Tolkien did. And in other ways, fantasy as we know it today would not exist without Tolkien. He is a giant, and we all stand on his shoulders. In that respect, comparing everyone to Tolkien is not really fair.
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, on other peoples' parts.
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 inevitable 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, or whatever—the wise old fellow shows up in a small country village, and says, "You must follow me to save the world." And the villagers say, "Right then, guv, off we go!" And 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.
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.
I know that Tolkein hated allegory in his story. What is your belief?
Tolkein hated allegory. He thought that his stories should just be stories, and I actually feel similar to him. I do have themes in my books, but I let the theme come as an outgrowth of what the characters are passionate about. And certainly, there are certain things, you’ll read Way of Kings and Dalinar’s very interested, a very big theme spiritually in the book (I know, that sentence doesn’t make any sense). But, it’s not me going in and intentionally writing an allegory. I like the story to stand as a story, I like telling stories. I’m not big into writing metaphors.
Certain people are very good at that. C.S. Lewis did a great job of that, it’s not what I try to do.
So how do I see the fantasy market going? Boy. You know...I'm really excited over what's happening in the fantasy genre right now. It feels like we're entering something of a golden age, where we are exploring the genre in new ways. I always talk about it as it seems like the generation after Tolkien was responding to Tolkien. Which is appropriate, because Tolkien was so awesome. And Tolkien changed the face of fantasy. And there were a lot of responses and perfecting of this type of story which I feel personally culminates in the Wheel of Time, which is kind of the majestic, best version of this sort of heroic arc story that was popular in the '70s and '80s. And then 1990, Robert Jordan starts the grand sort of culmination of them all. And after that, it felt like fantasy didn't quite know where to go. Certainly we had one branch that went into George R. R. Martin, which is kind of the new grittiness, which is great. There's a lot of cool things happening there, and that genre, the heroic gritty is still going strong. David Gemmell was a precursor to that, to what George R. R. Martin did, and certainly Moorcock and some of these also were doing it in the past. But there's a new wave of this.
But epic fantasy didn't seem to know what to do with itself, for a little while. And now we're recovering and we have new authors that seem to be approaching it in new ways and expanding. Epic fantasy can have wonderful, inventive worlds to the extent that no other genre can do. Science fiction can do great worlds, but we can add added levels of magic upon it, to give us this wholly original sort of thing. And hopefully we're seeing more people take more risks in their world-building and their narrative structure, like you see in Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or the Patrick Rothfuss books. The narratives are getting very interesting and the worlds are getting very interesting. I see in fifty years from now, people looking back and saying, "That's where fantasy hit the golden age." And I hope that's the case. I hope we continue to explore and to innovate and to just have fun with this.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. I’ve always wondered who “They” are, and if—by chance—they’ve never heard of Michael Whelan. Because my experience in life has been very different.
It’s been almost twenty years now since I first discovered Michael’s work. I was fourteen when it happened, and I was not a reader. I’d been handed a succession of novels about young boys living in the wilderness and taking care of their pet dogs. (Which would die by the end of the book.) I disliked reading with a passion. So, when my eighth-grade teacher assigned me to do a book report, I did everything I could to get out of it.
That failed. In fact, it failed so solidly that the teacher—unwilling to let me choose my own book to read, for fear I’d choose something not up my reading level—steered me to the back of the room, where she kept a group of ratty paperbacks to loan out to students. You probably know the type—ripped, stained by spaghetti sauce from cafeteria lunches, pages folded and worn. I was told I had to read one of these and had to do a book report on them—and she’d read them all, so she’d know if I tried to fake it.
Sullen and annoyed, I began to sift through the books. Most looked terrible. I resigned myself to another dead dog story, but then one of the books actually caught my eye. It had this vivid painting of a dragon standing in the mists, a woman held limply in its hand. Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly. The painting was so beautiful, so realistic yet imaginative, that I snatched it up, actually a little eager to look through the pages. I ended up taking it home with me.
I read that book in one day. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever tried reading before. (I had never been introduced to fantasy novels.) Dragonsbane was amazing, challenging, imaginative, gripping, and beautiful all wrapped up in one. I remember a severe bout of disappointment upon finishing the book because I thought surely there couldn’t be anything else like it in the entire world.
Still, hopeful, I visited the school library the next day. I looked through the card catalog, and picked the next book—alphabetically by title—after Dragonsbane. It was called Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey. I went and pulled it out, and was once again captivated by the cover. I took it home and read it.
My life changed. Now, we throw around sentences like that in writing, using them over and over again until they become as worn as the shoes of a traveling salesman—hardly capable of holding meaning any longer. But let me say it again. My life changed.
I devoured every Anne McCaffrey book in the school library. Suddenly, what I’d discovered in Dragonsbane wasn’t a single, freak event. There was a pattern. If two authors could do this, perhaps there were others. Hungry for more, I went to the bookstore and discovered there was an entire fantasy genre.
There were so many books. Which to choose? Dragons had treated me well so far, so I looked for some dragon books. And there, right on the shelf, was a beautiful book called Dragon Prince. I consumed it, and then everything else Melanie Rawn was writing.
What do these books all share? It wasn’t just the dragons; it was the covers. Each time, there was something dramatic and special about them. I now own prints of Dragonsbane and several of Melanie’s covers. All were painted by Michael Whelan.
By the time Tad Williams’ Dragonbone Chair came out, I could recognize Michael’s art on sight. And I also knew to trust it. It didn’t seem logical—you really shouldn’t be able to judge a book by its cover. But a Whelan cover became a seal of approval to me, a sign that the publisher trusted the book so much that they got the best person available to do the cover.
I can’t tell you all of the authors Whelan’s art led me to over the years: Patricia Mckillip, Joan D. Vinge, Stephen Donaldson, and even Asimov. (Yes, you read that right. I first picked up Asimov because Whelan had done the new Foundation covers.)
I remember when winter 1993 rolled around. My local bookseller noted to me that Whelan had a new art book coming out, one half dedicated to covers, one half dedicated to his fine art. It was the only thing I requested for Christmas, and my parents bought it for me despite the cost. I spent hours leafing through the wonderous, fantastic art. Those imagines sparked things in my mind. I was an author in embryo, absorbing, thinking, dreaming. One of the very first stories I ever wrote was a ‘fanfic’ based on Whelan’s Passage series of fine art prints.
The years have passed. There are other wonderful fantasy artists out there—and, in a way, the market has finally caught up to Whelan (much as the fantasy genre itself needed time to catch up to Tolkien.) I’ve been lucky to have some of those incredible artists paint covers for my books. But I’ve rarely felt as much excitement, wonder, and awe as I did the when I got to open an email and see the cover for The Way of Kings.
Irene Gallo (Tor’s art director) asked me to provide a quote about how I feel having a Whelan cover on one of my books. My editor, Moshe, noted “Surely you’ll mention how it’s a dream come true for both you and your editor.” But 'Dream come true' is another one of those phrases we use so often it has lost its meaning.
How do I really feel? Well, when I was a senior in high school, I was forced to take a life-planning class. In that class, we had to write down ten 'life goals' we wanted to achieve some day. #1 on my list, which I still have somewhere, was “Publish a book someday that is good enough to deserve a Michael Whelan cover.”
It has always been a deep-seated desire of mine to one day have a Whelan painting on one of my works. Without this man’s skill and vision, I might never have discovered the fantasy genre, and I might not be writing novels today.
You might say I’m a little bit pleased.
I'm going to have to sign out for the evening; I think this is a good place to wrap up. Next week we should have, as our guest, Professor Scott Nokes. He's our popular medievalist expert from Troy University. He's going to be talking about the most recent "Tolkien" endbook to come out, which is the book in which Tolkien's son published Professor Tolkien's two new Lays of the sagas of Sigurd and Gudrun, so they're kind of his version of "Nibelungenlied", written in a poetic format in the style of the old Norse Eddas but in a modern language. So it does have an interesting appeal, and we'll talk about what that means for popular medievalism, and things of that nature. I want to thank Brandon for joining us this evening. Thank you very much for being on our show, Brandon.
Ah, no problem; thanks for having me!
And to let you know that if you ever do decide to release your home-brew rules for your RPG as a lulu, that I'll likely purchase them. (laughs)
I've actually considered it, so we'll see. We'll see if I ever have the time to write all of this up. It's pretty screwy.
Sure, yeah. It might be interesting to see. But thank you. This is Christian Lindke signing out. I'd also like to thank Bill and Eric for joining us this evening, and I will see you all next week. Have a great, geek-filled week.
Brandon, I just wanted to confirm that you did have a couple of cameos as Slowswift? Or was that mean to be someone else?
I'm pretty sure Slowswift is Hoid. The Ars Arcanum says he "bears a striking resemblance to a storyteller", which I take to mean Hoid.
Slowswift is an homage to Grandpa Tolkien. A study of his personality will reveal why that name was chosen for him.
Hoid appears in that same chapter, but Vin doesn't meet him. Something he does spooks her. She's just too darn observant for her own good.
I'm glad you say that, because again, you know, I'm an aging flower child, so that ought to tell you a lot. And you know, Tolkien—that was where it was at—Lord of the Rings. A now a lot of people—a new generation, after the movie came out—have gone back to read that. And you know, it was a different time, obviously. And I'm glad you brought up Tolkien because many talk about this as the new Tolkien—kind of like if you liked Tolkien, you're going to love Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. How do you feel about that?
You're going to love the Wheel of Time. I've read a lot of fantasy, a lot of fantasy. I've read a lot of things – I like to read widely now that I'm older. I think it's important to read widely and to be sampling lots of different stuff, particularly viewpoints you don't agree with so you can see what people are saying and listen to them. I think that's really what has to happen. But anyway, I love fantasy, I've read a lot of it. And no one got it right like Robert Jordan got it right. Meaning, Tolkien did something amazing. He blew our minds, is really what happened. There hadn't been anything like Tolkien. There'd been fantasy, but never epic fantasy, with the real world that just feels like it's got a history and a lore and everything together – never been anything like that before. And a lot of people tried to imitate Tolkien, and what they did is they copied him. They copied the tropes. They used the same types of races, the same type of story, and yet they didn't get the core of it right, in my opinion. Not until Robert Jordan, where he did the lore and the mythology, and it was all his own. He wasn't copying Tolkien, and yet he was using the process that Tolkien did.
I mean, a part of the genius of these books, the Wheel of Time, is this idea of the circular nature of time. The idea is that the world of the Wheel of Time is actually our world in the future and in the deep past, because ages come and pass. And so, in the Wheel of Time books, you'll find references to things like a man who flew to the moon in the belly of an eagle, which is a reference to Buzz Aldrin, and things like this. Our history has become their mythology. And yet the things they're living through are the foundation for some of our mythology. There's a character who's—you can see, if you really research it—Robert Jordan is using Odin and Loki as mythology that this person is starting, as in when our time comes around again this person was the foundation of what became the Odin and Loki mythology. And so, it's fascinating how he's interweaving our world becoming their world, which is becoming our world—just wonderful sort of philosophical use of mythology. But of course, the real core is the characters. It's not about philosophy, it's about characters that you love and you care about as they live through all of this.
"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.
Somewhat inevitably, perhaps, Jordan ended up being compared to fantasy's other master—J.R.R. Tolkein, of Lord of the Rings fame. And from a powerful source, too.
"Jordan has come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal..." crowed the New York Times. Perhaps it was his battle scenes, which portray a realism that only one who has experienced battle—Tolkien in the World Wars and Jordan in Vietnam—can truly contemplate, although Jordan says he reached further back for his sources.
But it was more likely something deeper. Tolkien had a great mastery over the world in which his characters lived. Indeed, that was why he wrote his stories at all. As a master linguist who was utterly fascinated by ancient British and Norse mythology, his goal was to create a separate world. He even created a language to go along with it—Elvish—which anyone with a great deal of time and inclination can learn.
Jordan, too, has created a new world, but his world is a byproduct of his story.
"The beginnings of the story came first, then the world began to grow." he says.
"I was rather shocked by the write-up in the New York Times comparing me to Tolkien. We have totally different backgrounds. He has an English voice and drew strongly from English and Norse traditions. I have a Southern voice. He had two women of note—Arwen and Eowyn. In my world's mythology, women tell half the story. I grew up around strong women. Women killed and ate the meek men in my world," he says.
Another thing that sets Jordan apart from Tolkien is an ever-present sense of hope—something that has kept readers reading for 7,000 pages and will keep them reading 'til the end of the series, which Jordan says will take a minimum of two more books. No matter how bad the odds are against his characters, no matter that the world draws ever closer to its final battle with the Dark One, Jordan slips in enough events to stop readers from becoming fatalistic.
Tolkien, on the other hand, was a profound fatalist himself. And, indeed, while his characters did, for the most part, achieve their ends, there is a sense of bittersweetness that pervades his works. His attitude is evident even in his relationships with the young children he left at home while off fighting World War II (and dreaming up his master work). Speaking metaphorically of the war with the Germans, he wrote his youngest son Christopher, saying, "We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. ... The War is not over (and the one that is or the part of it, has largely been lost.) But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on; and it is no good growing faint."
It would be hard to picture Jordan announcing that wars are always lost to a young child; instead, he has a childlike sense of wonder and enjoyment of the world around him that his predecessor lacked.
The Fantasy Series
I'm in the middle of an experiment. My newest book, Warbreaker, is a stand-alone epic fantasy, much as my first book Elantris was. Obviously, I'm not the only one to release stand-alones in this genre. There's a grand tradition of it, and some of my personal favorite books are stand-alones. I'm curious to see how readers react to me jumping away from a series and doing another stand-alone, as it's something I want to do fairly frequently.
And yet, though I don't let the sales choose what I write or publish, I do let them worry me. Really, releasing this book should be like releasing any other. I'm excited about it, I put my soul into it, and I think it represents some of the best writing I've ever done. And yet, at the same time, I know there's going to be less excitement about it from the readership than there was for the final Mistborn book. Stand alones tend to get reviewed more and better, they tend to make fans happy, and yet they just don't tend to sell as well. (I don't know for certain—I won't see numbers on the release week until next Wednesday.)
Ever since Tolkien had to split Lord of the Rings, there has been a strong tradition of the fantasy epic coming in installments. We fantasy readers like lots of worldbuiling, lots of depth of character, and lots of viewpoints. And yet, at the same time, it seems that we like to complain about the length of the series. We want them to be long—but we don't want them to be TOO long. The problem is, we all seem to have a different definition of what makes a series "too" long.
If you look at the figures, the Wheel of Time didn't start hitting #1 on the New York Times list until its eighth or ninth book. It took Goodkind longer, with Sword of Truth. I believe the eleventh book was the first to hit #1. Even while people were complaining about these series, they were buying more and more copies of them. Perhaps that's what was making them complain—they really wanted an ending, and were willing to read until they got to it. They just wished they could get the ending sooner.
Or maybe the ones complaining are just a vocal minority. Still, the genre's love of the huge series does worry me a little. The length of a story shouldn't be dependent upon what the market wants, but what the story itself demands. If I write a story that I feel takes one book, I want to (and will) release it as one book. If it takes three, I'll do three. If it takes ten, I'll do ten. I hope to have the flexibility to be doing a little from each of those piles during my career.
Yet even as it worries me, there's a piece of me—that fantasy novel lover who grew up as a teenager reading Eddings, Williams, and Jordan—that pushes me to do something BIG. Something grand in scope, something massive, long, intricate, and...well, epic.
So what are your thoughts? Short series? Stand alone? Big epics? Why do the long series sell so much better when people are vocally claiming they wish there were more stand alones and trilogies out there?
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.
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.
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.
Although I think you're right—we are getting into kind of details, but I do want to come back to the worldbuilding a little bit later in the conversation. But without giving too much away about the final book–there's a lot of fighting because, you know, it is the Last Battle, right?
And I know that your husband had a military background. Can you talk about that, and how it may have influenced his writing?
Yes, he served two tours in Vietnam, in the Army. He was a helicopter door gunner.
And a Citadel graduate, right?
Yes, he was. He went to The Citadel as a Veteran student, and loved that institution and the Army with–with all his heart, you might say. A friend of his said to me once, "Some people take off the uniform, and that's that. Other people, the uniform sinks right into their skin." And my dear husband was one of the latter.
And it really shows in the books. There's a lot of tactics, a lot of military strategy.
Yes, it does. The New York Times said at one point that the books reflect the last 30 years of American experience, including war, in the way that Tolkien's book reflected the last 30 years of the English experience when he was writing during World War II, that Robert Jordan's battle scenes are pretty wonderful.
That's an interesting parallel to Tolkien actually.
The New York Times' article on Tolkien and Jordan, published in 1996, can be read here.
Shallan's sketches in The Way of Kings are terrific additions that enhance the epic feel of the novel. What inspired you to push for these illustrations?
I wanted to use the form of this novel to try and enhance what epic fantasy can do, and downplay the things that are tough about it. One of the tough things about epic fantasy is the learning curve—how much you have to learn and pay attention to, how many things there are to just know. I felt that occasional illustrations could really help with that. For instance, how Shallan's sketchbook, or uses of multiple maps, could give us a visual component to the book. Pictures really are worth a thousand words. You can have on that page something that shows a creature much better than I can describe it. And so I felt that that would help deemphasize the problem of the learning curve, while at the same time helping to make this world real. Epic fantasy is about immersion, and I wanted to make this world real since that's one of the great things we can do with epic fantasy. We've got the space and the room to just build a completely real world, and I felt that the art would allow me to do that, which is why I decided to do "in world" art.
I didn't want to take this toward a graphic novel. I like graphic novels, but it wasn't appropriate here to do illustrations of the scenes and characters from the books because I don't want to tell you what they look like. I want that to be up to your own imagination. And so we wanted that in-world ephemera feel to it, as though it were some piece of art that you found in the world and included.
I think it goes back to Tolkien. There's a map in The Hobbit, and that map isn't just a random map, which has become almost a cliché of fantasy books and of epic fantasy. "Oh, of course there's a random map in the front!" Well, Tolkien wanted you to think this map was the actual map the characters carried around, and that's why he included it. He wrote his books as if he were the archivist putting them together and translating them and bringing them to you, this wonderful story from another world, and he included the map because the map was there with the notes. That's what I wanted the feel for this ephemera to be. As though whoever has put this book together—done the translation and included pieces of art and maps and things that they found in the world that had been collected during these events—that's what you're getting.
And your Mistborn series, like you said, it is more serious. Tell us a little bit about the Mistborn series.
Okay. One of the things I felt that I wanted to do, when I finally did break in, was find some way that I could add to the genre, rather than re-treading the same ground. I felt that I wanted to try and look at the fantasy genre and do plots that hadn't been explored yet. And the Mistborn books are my attempt at doing that.
A lot of epic fantasy has this same sort of concept. This young protagonist, raised in the rural area goes on a quest to defeat the dark lord. And it's a wonderful, powerful story; it's the story that Tolkien used to an extent; it's certainly the story that Robert Jordan used, and you see it coming up over and over again in fantasy and I worried it had come up too many times. And so the Mistborn series came from me saying, "Well, what if he failed? What if this kid, this plucky protagonist, you know, went to save the world and it went all wrong?"
And it failed? Oh!
What if Frodo kept the ring? Or what if Sauron had killed him and taken the ring? What if Voldemort killed Harry Potter at the end of book seven? What happens? And the way that I approached this is saying, "Okay, that's happened. You've got your generic epic fantasy story that all happened, and the hero failed." Thousand years later, now what? And it focuses around a team of thieves who get together and decide, "Okay, the prophecies were lies, the hero didn't save us, the world is essentially enslaved. Let's try this our way." And their plot is to rob the dark lord silly, use the money they get to bribe his armies away from him, and over throw the empire. And that's Mistborn.
You know, Brandon, as you were talking about the Mistborn [series], you brought up some memories of my childhood. I don't remember what this series was, but I read this series that exactly was kind of like that: you know, the character is a normal person, he's great, throughout the series, but the very end, it doesn't all turn out right. He becomes evil and the series ends! And it haunted me. My whole life. And I still don't remember what the series was. I wish I would have remembered it, but . . . yeah, that's a very interesting concept and it doesn't happen very often.
I was tempted to actually do that. I felt that would have been too much of a downer. Which is why I jumped forward a thousand years and then used kind of flash backs to tell the story of what happened a thousand years ago, because it's not as clear cut as I've made it sound.
Well, that series I mentioned, I mean, that scarred me for life. [laughs] So I'm glad that you did a little different at the end there.
The other thing is I would have had to write it as a kind of more generic fantasy at the beginning and then take it other places, and I wasn't sure if I could do that because I don't know if my heart would have been in it, trying to write a fantasy that is more generic.
The other big thing I like to do with my books that I hope does something new and interesting is try to approach having interesting different types of magic. And I think the best fantasy books do this, and I wanted each book that people read of mine to have a new magic system. I like to write magic that feels like it could be a science, that in this world there's another branch of science that we don't have in our world, that if you explore and apply the scientific method to it, you can figure out how it works. And I tend to write stories where we've got people figuring out the magic. They're working in sort of a magical renaissance. That's the theme for my next series, The Way of Kings, which is what's going to be coming out next year, is the idea that we're living in a world where people are discovering the magic and bringing it back to the world and trying to figure out how it works and actually applying reason and science to it to get some hard numbers on what it can do and what it can't do.
Between churning out eight books of your own and completing the series, have you had the chance to read other fantasy authors?
Fantasy has had some problems with being too repetitive, in my opinion. I try to read what other people are doing—and say, How can I add to this rather than just recycle it? How can I stand on Tolkien's shoulders rather than stand tied to his kneecaps?
Sanderson hit the New York Times best seller list six times in four years. With A Memory of Light, the 14th and final book in the Wheel of Time—delivered to a throng of die-hard fans at a BYU midnight release party in January 2013—Sanderson topped the list again.
Stories are about people; the stories aren't about the fantasy. When I read Tolkien, the story of Sam and Frodo and what they went through, and their determination, and Sam's loyalty—these are inspiring. This is what changes peoples' lives.
That's my goal in writing this. You know, people—real people—and the struggles they go through. And hopefully, by reading them, and having a fun time because it's an adventure, but at the same time, what should stay with you is the choices they make. And hopefully that will help the people who have read them to lead better lives.
I just saw the $2.99 Kindle deal for The Way of Kings and someone mentioned "it had a slow start."
I don't read a lot of fantasy, but I'm trying to get more into it. It seems to me (and I could be wrong) that every seemingly uber-popular Fantasy series out there has "a slow start". (LotR, Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, the Stormlight Archives, etc.)
But who cares if I'm right or wrong.
Are there any fantasy books or series out there that 'start REALLY FAST' and just don't slow down?
Writing a fantasy book that is fast in the way you say is not difficult—it's writing a fast-starting epic fantasy that is difficult. A good epic is often like a good piece of electronica music&mdsah;it's the slow build, the steady adding of complexity and worldbuilding that I find exciting about the genre.
That's not the only way to do it, I'm certain, but it is the route I took. The Way of Kings does indeed start slow. The slowness isn't caused by what I think you may be assuming, however. It's caused by multiple viewpoints arranged in a puzzle for which the final picture is not yet clearly obvious. There are plenty of action scenes in the first ten chapters of KINGS. There is a lot of motion and conflict. However, we don't get a viewpoint from the main character until chapter three, and don't come back to him until chapter five. This gives a real sense of "What is this book even about?" which, mixed with some very steep worldbuilding, slows the book down.
Contrast this to a traditionally fast book, like a thriller or mystery. You are presented with one character, and the conflict for that character is often clear in the first chapter. You know what the plot is going to be early on. There are some fantastic books written this way (Jim Butcher has been mentioned, and I think his Codex Alera books are a great example of someone doing a hybrid epic fantasy and thriller. They are some of the fastest epics I've read. But even they don't "Start really fast" like you say. I think you'll be hard pressed to find an epic that does. The examples will mostly be heroic or urban.)
I find that the slow build allows for far more explosive endings as all of the pieces come together. It is something I avoided doing to the extent that KINGS does it, however, until I already had a reputation as a writer.
I feel like starting slow and creating buildup is sort of the "classic" way to write fantasy, as that's the way Tolkien wrote. Could that be another reason so many fantasies are written this way? Are writers are saying, "This was good enough for Tolkien and it worked and people liked it, so I'm going to emulate his method."?
Edit: I should add that I usually like slow build-up and wasn't really critiquing them, but rather just wondering about them.
Tolkien certainly casts a long shadow. It's hard to separate anything we do in epic fantasy from his influences. Certainly, I'd say this is part of it.
In the end, most writers create things like they loved to read. Hopefully, we're adding to the tradition, rather than just replicating what has gone before.