Interview with Maria SimonsEdit
Posted by Kathana on Dragonmount, March 19th, 2010
Maria Simons, one of the two continuity editors and long time assistant to Robert Jordan was kind enough to sit down for an interview with one of our forum moderators earlier this week. In addition to being an incredible resource on Wheel of Time setting and character information, she also has a unique insight into working with Robert Jordan, and now Harriet McDougal and Brandon Sanderson. She will also be appearing on several panels at the upcoming JordanCon, which takes place in Atlanta, GA April 23-25 this year.
Hey everyone, Luckers here. Most of you will have heard of Maria Simons (The Maria from MAFO—Maria and Find Out), who along with Alan Romanczuk work for Team Jordan in making sure the continuity of the series is maintained—essentially, they’re the one who go through the 4 million words of notes to supply Brandon with the information he needs to keep the series running on path.
These guys are the mechanics which keep the world running, and recently I was given a chance to get to know Maria a little better. Here is the interview; I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.
Oh, and please note that Maria refers to Robert Jordan as Jim (which is his real name–James Oliver Rigney).
James: How did you get involved in working for the Wheel of Time? What did you do before that led to this job?
Maria: Back in the late 80s, I worked as an editor for a small publisher in California. It went belly-up, and I became a stay-at-home mom for a number of years. In 1994, we moved home to Charleston, and I needed work. I had one part-time job, but needed more. My husband ran into Harriet on the street one day in January of 1996, and asked her if she knew anyone who needed an editor. She didn’t, but did say that she and Jim needed help answering fan mail. We saw the two of them at a party soon thereafter, and Jim and I talked about my coming in for that, and sized each other up (we had met before, but just socially). Soon afterwards, I came home from my other job to find a note: Jim Rigney called; he has some work for you (I still have that note). I started out working twelve hours a week on fanmail and filing. Harriet told me later that the reason that she wanted to hire me was that she knew that with editorial experience, I would know my way around proofs and galleys. After a year, I went to work full time for Jim.
James: So how long have you worked on the Wheel of Time?
Maria: If we count the fanmail as working on the Wheel of Time, it’s been just over fourteen years.
James: Were you aware of the Wheel of Time prior to taking it on as a job? Had you read it?
Maria: Back in 1991, I was visiting my husband’s family. My young brother-in-law (14 at the time) showed me this huge book. “You have to read it. It’s great! And it was written by our cousin!” (That’s not quite accurate. Harriet’s aunt married my husband’s great-uncle, so there are shared cousins, but no actual blood relationship. But in Charleston, it’s close enough to claim). He kept on and on, so finally I picked it up just to get him off my back. That book was /The Eye of the World/, and I loved it. I ran out and bought copies of /Eye/ and /The Great Hunt/ and sent them to my husband (he was in Panama on military duty). I also read /The Great Hunt/, of course. After that, we eagerly awaited each book, and grabbed them as soon as possible (by this time I had joined my husband in Panama). When we visited Charleston, my husband would head over to Harriet and Jim’s and get them autographed. I don’t know why I never went; it probably had something to do with having two small children. I finally met Jim at a family gathering in 1994; I managed to contain myself and not go all fangirl on him, but I did enjoy talking to him. By that time, I had read /Eye/ at least six times, /The Great Hunt/ five, /The Dragon Reborn/ four, etc.
James: Ok, so once you started reading the series what was it that really got you hooked?
Maria: I’m a character-driven reader, so any book that hooks me does so primarily because of the characters. So, on the first go, it was the characters that grabbed me. The world-building and lovely convoluted plot with so many mysteries didn’t hurt, either. I just loved the books. James: Do you still do frequent re-reads? How many times would you say you’ve read the series to date? Maria: I don’t actually read the books straight through anymore. I did read The Eye of the World /after Jim died, but usually I read them in bits and pieces. A lot of times when I’m trying to answer a question from Brandon or fans, I’ll get distracted from my search and find a scene that I love, and read it. At one point, I worked out that I had read /The Eye of the World/ at least 20 times. It’s kind of scary, sometimes; when I’m looking for a particular scene, I pick up the book, open it, and I’m at the scene that I’m looking for. Sometimes Alan and I race; he searches the digital copy for something, and I pick up the book. I frequently win.
James: What did you do for Robert Jordan as a part of that job, and how much as that changed since his passing?
Maria: My job has constantly evolved. First there was fanmail and filing. Then the audiobook project got underway, and someone had to go through and mark all of the changes in point of view so that Michael Kramer could read the male POVs and Kate Reading could read the female ones. Jim decided that I could do that, so, much to my delight, I was getting paid to read The Wheel of Time. I was in hog heaven, of course. At that time, Jim was finishing up /A Crown of Swords/, and when the proofs came in, Harriet suggested that I assist in going through them, but Jim said no, he didn’t want to spoil me. I was crushed. Over the next year or so, though, my job broadened. He gave me the in-house glossary to tidy up, and some of his notes to consolidate. He also would give me lists of questions like “Has character A ever met Character B?” and “Give me three examples of character C’s speech” and “Find me all of the information you can on what a baby feels as he’s being born.” By the time he had /The Path of Daggers/ ready to give to Harriet for editing, I had convinced him that I could help with maintaining our house glossary going forward, and he decided that I would get the pages at the same time Harriet did. Harriet encouraged me to edit as well, and I would do that and pass the pages on to her. I don’t know if any of my edits made it into the final book, but Harriet did begin recommending me for freelance editing.
I did other things as well. Jim had a massive personal library, and mentioned that he would love for it to be cataloged; I cobbled together a classification system, using WordPerfect mail merge. I also cataloged his music collection, and kept the existing catalog of movies updated. I did shopping for him, arranged appointments, worked on the Wizards of the Coast RPG and the /New Spring/ comics. When the new cat went missing, I made and put up posters in the neighborhood (we found her hiding under the house, eventually); when cranes and herons started stealing goldfish, I was given fox urine to spread around the pond to discourage them (Jim did encourage me to delegate; I managed to pass that one on to someone else. It smelled so bad that that idea was soon abandoned and we covered the fish pond with a net. I still sometimes find huge birds staring hungrily at the fish when I walk out there). Eventually I took over the bookkeeping as well. He took to calling me his right arm. Over time, I picked up assistants, two of whom are still with me: Marcia Warnock, who took over the book catalog, spread the fox urine, keeps me in office supplies, handles all the annoying phone calls, and keeps me on schedule; and Alan Romanczuk, who took over the questions and research, became our IT specialist, and assists with the bookkeeping, among many other things.
Then, after the Knife of Dreams tour, Jim was diagnosed with amyloidosis. Our focus changed somewhat; we all worked to help him and Harriet as much as we could. After the night that Jim told the ending to Wilson and Harriet, I would sit and talk with him about the end of the series, with a tape recorder running. The last thing that we did together was select the winners of the calendar art contest. Note: I didn’t select, I just gave him the art and took notes, and then emailed the winning names to Tor. That was two days before his death.
The significant thing that has changed about my job since then is that Jim isn’t here. It’s quieter — there is no big, booming voice calling “Maria!” or singing as he comes in the office. There’s no one explaining military stuff to me and making it really clear and interesting. There’s no one sitting at his desk wearing a silly hat. What I do at my job hasn’t changed that much. Now I work directly for Harriet, who is as wonderful a boss as Jim was. When Brandon has questions about the books, I work on finding answers, as does Alan. When Brandon sends us a book, I go through it looking for continuity errors, just as I did with Jim, and suggesting other changes, just as before. I still do the bookkeeping with Alan’s help, and other banal stuff. I know a lot more fans now, of course; I went to JordanCon, DragonCon, and the Charleston and New York booksignings for /The Gathering Storm/. I can hardly wait until JordanCon 2, which as I type is 11 weeks and 1 day away.
James: I always knew Team Jordan was a close-knit group, but I get the sense from this that Jordan Estate was more like its own little community, with Jim as a sort of patriarch and all of you working to support each other. Was this how it was for you? And did this help you all in the wake of Jim’s passing?
Maria: Heh. That’s more or less it, but . . . let me tell you a story. One day, many years ago, I went into Jim’s office. While there, I mentioned some problem that I was having (I have no idea what it was; it was that long ago). Jim immediately proceeded to give me chapter and verse on what to do. I answered that I was going to think about it more, and then went upstairs to my office. A few minutes passed, and then there was the booming “Maria!” from the bottom of the stairs. I went out, and he said that he was sorry for going all patriarchal on me, that I was a grown, capable woman and that I should do what I thought best. I hadn’t even thought twice about it, but he was worried that he had overstepped his bounds. Therefore, I hesitate to call him a patriarch. He was our leader.
So we all worked together. It’s a strange little group, sort of random, but not really. Harriet was at my wedding; she appears in some of the pictures taken. Jim may have been there (really, most of that day is a blur in my memory), but he was probably off writing. Marcia was once my husband’s boss. She and I share the same birthday, and almost no one can tell us apart when we answer the phone. Alan’s son went to the same school as my sons; I became friends with his wife before I ever met him, and he later coached my son’s tennis team (It was at a tennis match that his wife suggested he might be interested in working with us). We’re coworkers, yes, but we are friends too. We watch out for each other, and we’ve always joked that we’re more like a family than a business. Dealing with Jim’s illness brought us all even closer. We pulled together, and supported each other. And yes, it very much did help us when he died, and since.
James: You said Jim didn’t like to spoil you. Did this include you having access to the notes on pre-existing issues—as in resolutions to current mysteries and plotlines? I guess the question is, how much insider information did you have along the way? And, as a fan, did it ever make you gasp (squeal, laugh, pull your braid… ?)
Maria: In the early days, Jim didn’t want to spoil me. After not getting to work on /A Crown of Swords/, I went on a campaign to convince Jim that I didn’t mind spoilers, doing things like pointing out that I frequently reread murder mysteries. I finally had some success. At some point, early on (I think 1997ish) he realized that he had multiple files with the same name in his gazillions of notes. He asked me if I would be willing to consolidate notes, given that it was quite possible that I would find spoilers. I gave him an emphatic yes, and he passed the notes to me. The first thing I did was look up Verin; it was amazingly cool to get the scoop on her. I may have squealed. And I knew who killed Asmodean pretty early on, too. Some things he did keep hidden, though. He really enjoyed pulling off surprises..
James: Brandon said that as much as he was terribly excited to be involved in finishing the Wheel, there was an element of sadness as a fan to not be coming to the final product fresh. Is that true for you also?
Maria: Yes, it is. I would have loved to see how Jim put it all together. The sadness is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that I got so much from Jim himself in his last days, and that Brandon did such an amazing job with /The Gathering Storm, /and is a joy to work with.
James: You told me that you sometimes lurk on the boards. Have you ever encountered something that for whatever reason made you laugh out loud? If so can you tell us what?
Maria: I frequently encounter things that make me laugh out loud. WoT fans are an extremely clever bunch. Once, at Wotmania, someone joined using Harriet’s name. That person made a lovely post that included the (false) info that Talmanes was a Darkfriend (I have a crush on Talmanes. Not as big as the Mat crush, but . . .). There have also been many posts regarding Bela that tickled my funnybone (Is she the Creator? A Darkfriend? The Neigh’blis?). And somewhere recently I saw someone aver that it stated flat-out in the text who murdered Asmodean; it had just been transcribed inaccurately. According to this poster, Asmodean didn’t say “You? No!”; he said “Uno!” And Leigh Butler’s reread posts generally make me laugh out loud as well. It’s rare for me to go a-lurking and not lol at some point.
James: ‘YouNo’ lol. That’s brilliant. And I guess it means I don’t have to ask the tedious ‘who killed Asmodean’ question and we can just move on into the fan stuff. So is Talmanes your favourite character then? If not, who is, and have they always been so or has it changed as time has passed?
Maria: Mat is my absolute favorite. I love me some Mat. I don’t know exactly when the real Mat-love started; I started liking him a lot when he took out Galad and Gawyn with his quarterstaff. I don’t remember who my favorite was before that, but I did like Rand, Perrin, Lan, Verin and Moiraine (Mat was okay then, but the whole nasty dagger attitude kept him from being top tier). I didn’t love Nynaeve at first, but she has really grown on me over the years. Talmanes is my favorite secondary character. Other second tier characters that I love are Siuan Sanche, Gareth Bryne, Bayle Doman, Rhuarc, Halwin Norry, Bain, Chiad, and Gaul. Okay, I better stop now. That list could get very large.
James: Which is the character you most identify with? (Personally I’m thinking you and Verin are peas from a pod).
Maria: I do adore sneaky sneaky Verin. I identify myself as a member of the Brown Ajah, that’s for sure; I’m constantly studying books and notes. But when I’m handling all the financial stuff, I identify with Halwin Norry.
James: If you had to name a single moment and a single plotline that was your favourite, what would they be? You’re only allowed one. *grins evilly*
Maria: Your evil grin is wasted. This one is easy. I have a favorite chapter–chapter five of /Lord of Chaos,/ “A Different Dance.” There is just so much classic Mat in that chapter: when he can’t keep up with Betse’s mouth and Talmanes hums “A Frog on the Ice”, his dance with Betse with the memories from just before the Trolloc Wars, taking out the Hunter of the Horn with a low blow, and so much more. I absolutely love that chapter. It may have been that chapter that cemented the love for Mat.
James: Are there any characters you really dislike?
Maria: Gawyn. Joline. Sevanna. Therava. Elaida . . . oops, I mean Suffa. Liandrin. Padan Fain. Asunawa. The Forsaken. Again, I will stop here. The list could be large, too, but not as large as the “like” list.
James: Are you and Harriet working on the Encylopaedia now, or is that more of a ‘after everything is done’ kind of thing?
Maria: Harriet, Alan, Marcia and I have all put in some work on the encyclopedia. If there’s nothing else pressing, we work on it. Of course, there’s no way that we can finish it before the series is finished; once AMoL is done, we’ll kick it into high gear.
James: What are your plans post-WoT? Will you be involved with the potential Outrigger/Prequel Release? And what is beyond that for you?
Maria: Even after the last book is finished, there will still be things to do. It probably won’t be quite as exciting as working on a new book, but I do a lot that doesn’t directly involve the book in progress. Since no decision has been made on the Outriggers/Prequels, I can’t really say anything about them.
So that’s about it. I want to say thanks again to Maria for putting up with me—it was amazing to get such an insight into Team Jordan, and the process that led to us getting these amazing books, and on behalf of all the fandom thank you for your work on the series—I feel very comfortable knowing the ending is in the hands of such a dedicated group of people! Thanks, also, to Jennifer Liang, our very own Kathana, for helping me in this. It would not have happened without her!