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Story last updated at 8:21 a.m. Sunday, February 9, 2003
BY BILL THOMPSON
Of the Post and Courier Staff
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.
The measure of the man is his equilibrium. Global renown may have fattened his purse, but not his head. He has not been shanghaied by adulation down the unworthy paths of ego. Three of the 10 books of "The Wheel of Time" have scaled the summit of The New York Times best-seller list. "Crossroads of Twilight," his latest, is the first to open at the crest. He is gratified. He is not, however, calling for an attendant.
"You want the reader to be drawn into the world you create, to be immersed in it," says Jordan, relaxing in his study. "But if I, as the writer, got that deeply into my world, it would produce very bad writing. You would lose the flow of what you are doing. I'm not suspending disbelief; I know I created this. What I'm after is getting other people to suspend the knowledge that they are reading a book and, for a little time, to feel that this thing is real."
Frame of mind is key.
"I focus on sitting down to each book as if this is 'It.' Nobody has ever heard of Robert Jordan. I've got this one book that I've got to try to make good enough that people will know who Robert Jordan is. I know that's a strange way to look at it, but it is very useful for trying to make the book good. It also helps me not worry about what's gone before."
In the wake of book nine, "Winter's Heart" (2000), Jordan confided that he might prefer that the 10th volume be the capstone of the story. But there will be two more books, at least.
"I tried, but I've had a problem with that from the beginning. I knew the last scene of the last book in 1984. When I started writing I knew where I was going. But some things had to be pushed forward. The story hasn't expanded; it's just taken me more time. In 'Crossroads of Twilight,' things are reaching that stage where everything really is balanced on the point of a pin, or of a sword, if you prefer. There are a lot of things that could go in many directions. Good or evil can win in any number of different places and different levels."
If the book marks a departure from its predecessors, it rests with one particular device.
"One big departure is that each of the major segments of the book begins on exactly the same day, and it's a very significant day in terms of these books. The characters are reacting to the effects of that one significant day, as well as reacting to what is happening around them."
While Jordan hopes to bring matters to fruition in two more volumes, some of the more devoted fans would be only too happy if he took 10 more books to complete the saga. When such ardent calls fall on the ears of the folks at Tor Books, Jordan is moved to cry, "Don't listen to them! Don't listen!"
"I have spent 18 years of my life on this, and I would like to finish it. I thought I was signing up for a 10K run. I knew it was not a stroll in the park. I knew I was doing something that was going to be longer than usual. But when I first started I thought that 'longer than usual' meant five or six books. I honestly thought I would finish it in five. But I discovered it wasn't a 10K run. It was a marathon, and I want to cross the finish line. Because these books are the way they are, I have to finish it for them to mean anything. After I complete the cycle I can take a breath. I can really go on a vacation."
OF A PIECE
It is a mistake to view "The Wheel of Time" cycle as a series. Rather like Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," to which it is most often compared, "The Wheel of Time" is a single novel built of multiple books.
"I'm doing something that hasn't been done, I guess, since (English novelist Anthony) Trollope. I am writing a very long, multivolume novel. You can read the first book, 'The Eye of the World,' and stop, and feel you've read something that has enough resolution that you don't feel you have to read more. But you still have to start there."
Jordan cautions readers not to attempt to pick up the story in midstream, much less get one's feet wet with the most recent volume. Not until one has read books one through nine.
"You cannot start by reading 'Crossroads of Twilight.' If you do you will be bitterly disappointed. In 10 pages you'll give up. You have to start with 'The Eye of the World,' which has been continuously in print in hardcover for 13 years. There aren't many books that can match that."
The 11th book, thus far untitled, is due out in late 2004, or perhaps early 2005. Meanwhile, Jordan is at work expanding an earlier tale.
"I wrote a novella called 'New Spring' for a collection that was put together by Robert Silverberg for an anthology called 'Legends.' I had to compress the story quite a bit to get it down to novella length. I happened to mention to my publisher that had I put everything I had wanted into the story, it would have been twice the length. He asked if I'd be interested in rewriting it as a novel. So I'm going to do that. It's in progress now. I hope to have it finished in a few more months."
When "The Wheel of Time" stops turning, Jordan will not lack for fodder. He's already been pondering a new project for the past seven or eight years.
"There's nothing on paper yet, but a load of stuff in the back of my head. It will be very different. Another fantasy, but in a different world, a completely different universe with completely different characters. It will not in any way be a sequel, or even related to 'The Wheel of Time,' except that it also will go into the clash of cultures, the meeting of cultures that are widely different, a subject which has always fascinated me."
And the prospect excites him. The depth and detail will be there; it's how he writes. But the prodigious length? No. He is trying to plan how to structure this new set of books so that it can be done in six volumes.
Given the respect and artistry accorded "The Lord of the Rings" movies by director Peter Jackson, does Jordan feel that a film version of "The Wheel of Time" is now more feasible?
"I do not know whether it could be done in that way. I have just had an option offered from a production company called Manetheren Films, which was spawned for the purpose of producing the books as a miniseries or a series of miniseries on some place like HBO or the SciFi Channel. We'll see how it goes. It won't be the first time that someone has bought an option. NBC bought an option, then all the people involved in buying it went elsewhere. But the check cleared."
"Robert Jordan" is a trademark as well as a benchmark. Few writers experience this status, not that Jordan betrays any of the outward signs of celebrity.
"I have reacted (to it all) with continual surprise. I like it, of course. Who wouldn't? But I didn't expect it. Any writer hopes for success, and by success I mean acclaim, wonderful reviews and going up the best-seller lists. But only an idiot would expect it. There's another side to that, which I think some writers never get hold of. And that's the fact that one day it will go away. People like the books I am writing, and a lot of people have bought them. At some point I will write something that they don't like so well.
"But you hope you keep climbing or that you will have several peaks during your career. What I am most concerned with, frankly, is trying to make each book better than the books that have gone before. If I haven't learned at least a little bit in the last 18 years then I would be a very sorry writer. I would like to be as good as I can be."
Very occasionally, Jordan meets a reader who believes the author is imbued with some arcane potential, that the ability to Channel the One Power is not only an actual faculty, but something he can teach them to do.
Jordan chuckles, ruefully.
"I have more often met people - just as frightening in a way - who think because of these books I am some sort of guru or sage, and that they can learn great wisdom from me. I just write books. I tell stories, that's all. The books demand as much as the reader is willing to give them. My main concern is to write them in such a way that they will not merely stand up to repeated readings, but still offer something the second time through, or the fifth."
Bill Thompson covers movies and books. Contact him at 937-5707 or firstname.lastname@example.org. http://web.archive.org/web/20030420165404/www.postandcourier.com/stories/020903/art_09jordan.shtml