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Reality Break Episode 3 – Interview with Robert JordanEdit
Dave Slusher: Hello, and welcome to the Reality Break podcast. I'm your host Dave Slusher.
This episode we have an archived interview conducted with the late James Rigney, who is better known by his pen name, Robert Jordan. I spoke with him in his hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1994 while he was on tour with the sixth Wheel of Time book, Lord of Chaos. His bibliography hardly needs introduction as he is one of the best-known fantasy authors of all time, but let's do it anyway. He was the author of the Wheel of Time series, of which eleven volumes have been published, and the twelfth and final volume is due in late 2009. He was the author of eight Conan novels and a number of other novels outside of the fantasy genre. Sadly, he passed away from cardiac amyloidosis in September of 2007.
A few words about the circumstances of this interview. Because I overheard him as I was about to knock on his hotel room door, I know that right before we sat down to do the interview, he thought I was an idiot. Despite that, and despite the fact that I was kind of lost after having read 500 pages of Book Five of the series – I still didn't really know what was going on – this interview turned out pretty well. I learned some interesting things about him and his work. And about a month after we conducted this interview, I got a nice hand-written note from him, thanking me at some length for taking the time to sit down with him and interview him.
He lived in Charleston, South Carolina, which is about 90 miles from where I am right now, and he was every bit the southern gentleman. He is mourned by his legion of friends and fans, and I consider myself lucky to have met the man. And now, without further ado, here is the 1994 interview with author Robert Jordan.
Dave Slusher: Hi. We're speaking with author Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series, and the newest book is Lord of Chaos. And . . . welcome to the show.
RJ: Thank you for having me.
DS: And you're here on a publicity tour, and you're in Atlanta now. We're talking to you just prior to your signing at Oxford Books. Briefly, if you can – I know your series sort of defies brevity in a way – tell us a little about the series and the place of the newest book in the series. It's a very large question.
RJ: It isn't really possible to tell you a little bit about it at this point. When the third book was published, I was asked to do a one-paragraph synopsis of each of the first two books. And I said that isn't possible. And then I was asked, "well then, can you do a one-page synopsis of each of the first two books to send out with the third one to reviewers?" And I said it really isn't possible. You don't realize, I'm doing War and Peace here, except that I'm doing it for an entire continent, not one nation, and I'm doing it in a fantasy world that never existed, so everything is being created. It isn't possible to do it that quickly. A bare bones outline of each of the first two books was ten to twelve pages, and that was very bare bones. Not possible to do a short outline, no.
DS: How did the series come about when you originally started writing it? You started about eight years ago?
RJ: I started writing about eight years ago. The first thought occurred to me, oh, somewhere between 18 and 20 years ago. My books always bubble around in my head a long time before anything gets on paper. Actually, yeah, I guess it is about that.
The first idea that came to me, the first thought, was what is it really like to be the savior of mankind? What's it really like to be tapped on the shoulder and told you are the savior of mankind, and oh by the way, we expect you to go mad and die in order to fulfill prophecy and save everybody. That was the genesis.
DS: Originally, had you planned it to be as epic in scope as it has turned out to become?
RJ: Not really. When I went to my publisher originally – and this was about 1986 – I said I want to do this set of books, and I have no idea how many books I'm talking about. It is at least three or four, it might be five or six, I don't know. And luckily he was willing to go along with that. Most publishers would not go along with that. Most publishers would not go along with me not giving then an outline for the book, but instead giving them a twelve- or fifteen-page philosophical treatise explaining the themes of the book, and not a damn thing about what's actually going to be in the books. But Tom has always liked what I write, so he was willing to go.
DS: Tell us a little about the origins. Basically in any type of fantastical literature, you don't have the crutch of being able to pillage our own history so much. You have to make everything from the mythology and the basis of the culture up. I would imagine this was a pretty tall task for this series.
RJ: It's complicated. My degrees are mathematics and physics, but one of my hobbies has always been history. And also what now is called, I suppose, social anthropology. Those were hobbies of mine from the time I was a boy. It became relatively easy for me to create a "fake" culture simply because I had studied a good bit about how cultures came about. And I was always willing to ask the question of result. If you begin by saying: I want this, this, this, and this to be true in the culture I'm creating. But, you then say, if A is true, what else has to be true? And if B is true, what else has to be true? And more than that, if both A and B are true, what has to be true about that culture? Then you add in C and D, and you've started off with four things that you wanted to be true in this culture, and you have constructed the sort of culture in which those four things can be true - not the only culture in which they could be true necessarily, but one that holds together.
DS: Now, when you're writing on this scope, you're writing on many levels at the same time. You've got the individual interactions. You've got the interactions of different cultures. You have the larger interactions of the good and evil, and you have the supernatural characters that are sort of pulling strings all down below them. How hard is it to balance the action through all of these different levels?
RJ: Well, it's not all that hard in my head because I grew up in Charleston, which one writer once said makes Byzantium look simple. But I couldn't do it in a computer. I don't have the time to invest in that much effort on the computer simply to keep track of it.
There are a lot of layers – everything is an onion. And we're talking almost a four-dimensional onion here. Any particular point that you look at – almost any particular point – has layers to it. It's one of the interesting things to me, is how much can I layer things without making it too complicated. It's quite possible for somebody to read these books as pure adventure, and I actually have twelve-year-old fans who do that. I was surprised to find that I had twelve-year-old fans, but I do and they read it just like that. Other people spend quite a lot of time discussing the layering, and it's fun for me to do.
DS: Are there sheer, just logistical problems of having such a large cast that you’re really directing traffic for hundreds of characters? Do you have to keep a chart as you go along to keep track of who is where and what action is happening?
RJ: I keep incredible quantities of notes. It's all on hard disk and on floppies, hard disks on several of my computers. But if I printed it all out, I would imagine that the notes would be equal in volume to the manuscripts for the seven books – six books that I've finished so far, seventh that I'm working on. It's really an incredible amount of notes. I'm sometimes surprised at it myself. It's broken down for each of the major characters, and for each nation and the cities. Small things, like music or food. Also, sort of, there are general categories, such as . . . one of the things that I start off with in the beginning is where is every single major character? All the major characters, all the people I've touched on: where are they at the beginning of this book? Even if they weren't mentioned in the last book and aren't going to be mentioned in this book, I still want to know where they are. And what have they been doing since we last saw them?
DS: With such a large cast, you gain certain things. Does it cost you a little intimacy? If it was one book, focused on one person, strictly in their head, you would be a little more intimate.
RJ: No, because when I'm with the character I do get into his head, quite intimately. Or her head. In an aside, the biggest compliment I've had in a way was paid to me when I was autographing for the second book. At two different signings, I had a woman approach me and say that she had lost a bet, or an argument in one case, because I was a man. They'd been sure that 'Robert Jordan' was a pseudonym for a woman because the women characters they thought were so well written that no man could do that.
But I do get into their heads. It's one of the reasons the books are as large as they are. There are that many layers and I cover that much territory and still get intimate, if you will, with each of the characters. Or at least each of the characters who is being a main character, or a viewpoint character at least, in that particular book.
DS: Since you had mentioned the characterization of women in the books: now this book has, as opposed to some of the older fantasy of the last forty years, you have women, very strong women in positions of power, in positions of combat. Is that something that wouldn't have happened if you were writing these books in the past? Is that kind of a product of our times?
RJ: No, it's a product of growing up with strong women. All of the women I knew growing up were quite strong. All of the men I knew growing up were quite strong because any of the weak men got shredded and thrown aside. So it made for a certain viewpoint, a certain outlook in life.
Aside from that, the basic premise of the books, that 3000 years before the time of the books the world was essentially destroyed. The details don't really matter in the context of this interview, except for the fact that that destruction was caused by men, members of the male sex. A world that has grown out of that has to have a great deal of power for women, especially when the world has spent the last 3000 years being afraid of any man who has the ability to channel the One Power. You have to have a world where women have power. That's the way it's going to evolve. It can't go any other way. It's only a question of how much power they have.
DS: Now, structured as it is around the prophecies and the circularity of your history, does that lend to the story a certain . . . obviously, it focuses where the story can head. Does it limit you in any way, when you've got characters that are acting out the prophecies?
RJ: Not really. What I do is have certain main points that I know I'm going to touch on. But I am flexible in the order that I touch them, and I'm flexible in how to get from one to the next. Think of it as traveling cross country, and you know that you're going to go to mountain A, mountain B, mountain C, and mountain D. But maybe you'll go to mountain D first and mountain A second, and then you'll slide back to C. And in traveling from one mountain to another, you can take a lot of different paths.
It becomes a little bit more complex because you have to imagine this whole piece of terrain is only one layer, and you have another piece of terrain stacked above it, and another stacked above it, and another stacked above it, and another stacked above that. And which path is taken on the first level influences which path can be taken on the second level, which influences which path can be taken and which can't on the third level, and so forth on down the line. But still, the main points are fixed. It's only the paths between that flex.
DS: In my reading of the book, it seemed to me that individual identity is one of the themes that pretty much permeates a lot of the interactions of the characters. You have various struggles. You have the struggle of Rand for his own identity. You have various people submerging their identities in either cultural bonds, or you have various bonds, the bonds between the Aes Sedai and the Warders.
RJ: It is one of the themes. We like to believe in the United States that we're a nation of great individualists. And we do have occasional great individualists. By and large, we are a nation of people who bond together in groups and are generally suspicious of anybody in any other group. It's always been a struggle for Americans, it seems to me, what group to belong to and how far to submerge ourselves in that group. How far do you retain your own thoughts, and how much do you go by received wisdom? Sometimes received wisdom is true, and sometimes it's not. And it's difficult sometimes to tell the true from the false.
So, that is all part of it, that struggle, which I play out again and again. Because I'm not trying to give answers here, I'm basically trying to tell a story. And if in telling a story, I can make a few people think about this or that and ask a few questions, I'm really not that interested in what answers they come up with as long as I can get them to ask the questions.
DS: Do you have any personal experience from how Americans read the book versus other cultures?
RJ: I've spoken to people in England and Australia who've read the book. I've had fan mail from Spain and Sweden. As a matter of fact, I've been invited to be the guest of honor at the Swedish national fantasy convention next year. With a very laudatory letter, I must say.
There's a very different view in the different countries. Everybody picks up different things. Somehow, and I don't know how, really – it's something I was trying for but I don't know how – I've managed to make resonances in each of these countries. But, it seems from the mail I've received that it's subtly different what resonances they pick up.
DS: Now, a lot of fantasy, and yours is no exception, deals with the idea of nobility. It's a very old tradition in fantasy going back a thousand years, to have the idea of someone of common upbringing that rises up to the leadership position.
RJ: Oh, further than that.
DS: And your structure is quite similar to the King Arthur structure.
RJ: It's not only an ancient structure like that. It's in places like, oh, say a country that has a tradition of the common man born in the log cabin and rising to the White House. You know, anybody can be President. And in recent years, anybody has been.
It's an old tradition, and it's not just American. I've seen it in Japanese and Chinese mythology and African mythology. In Asia and Africa, more often the fellow who's the commoner who aspires to greatness gets punished for it by the gods. It is more – I should say, not exclusively – but more of a European and Middle-eastern tradition that the common man can challenge the gods, the entrenched powers, and conquer, or at least work out some sort of rapprochement.
And yeah, I work with that. I've tried to mine myths from every country and every continent. And reverse engineer them, of course. The Arthur myths, the Arthur legends, are easily recognizable in the books. I tried to hide them to some extent, but frankly Arthur is, I believe, the most recognizable legend in the United States. More people know about King Arthur than know about Paul Bunyan or Davey Crockett or anything that we have out of our own culture. But the others – myths from Africa and the Middle East, Norse mythology, Chinese mythologies – those things I could bury more deeply, more easily, because they're not very much recognized here.
DS: Now, let's talk a little about when you first started writing this series. Did you have any indication that it would be as popular and take off the way it has?
RJ: Of course not. Look, I hoped that the series would be successful. Nobody writes a book and hopes it's going to be a flop. But as far as this – no, I had no notion, no notion at all.
DS: And I'm sure that you're aware of it. For example, on the internet there's a very large group devoted to your work. Very in-depth discussion. Does this flatter you, that people are so willing to discuss in very, very fine detail?
RJ: It's a wonderful ego stroking. And it's also astonishing. I've known it about it for some time, and I'm not certain I'm over it yet, really. It does sort of make me want to drop my jaw. I find it astonishing. And, as I say, it's very very flattering, very flattering.
DS: Do you find that people's interpretations of the book, do they match up with what you intend? Or do people sometimes bring to you an interpretation that you hadn't thought of yourself?
RJ: Well, more often they're trying to work out details of what I'm intending to do, and what I have meant by things that I've already written. I've been sent in some cases sheets of Frequently Asked Questions and the answers that have been deduced. The only thing is, they're right between 20 percent, and oh, 33 percent of the time. They're almost right maybe another 20 percent of the time, 25 percent. And the rest of the time, they've gotten off into an incredibly wild tangent that makes me wonder if I ought to re-read the books to figure out how they came up with this.
I do look at what they have said. And by that, I mean I look at it when somebody sends me a print-out. I'm not on the 'nets, normally. But sometimes people will send me a print-out of a couple of days of discussion, or a Frequently Asked Questions list, as I said. And I'll look at that, and it does give me some feedback.
There are things in the books that I have tried to bury very deeply. And if, from the discussion or from the questions, I can see that they're beginning to get close to something I want to keep buried, I know that I have to be more subtle from now on, that I haven't been subtle enough. Or, on the other hand, there are some times when I realize that they're spending a lot of time discussing something that I was certainly not trying to make obscure that I thought was perfectly obvious. Then it becomes plain to me that I've gone the opposite way. I didn't say enough about it for them to understand. So then I have to maybe reiterate a little bit.
But I certainly - I don't change the plots or anything like that. I'm certainly not going to alter the fates of major characters or anything of that sort, whether someone has figured out what that's going to be or not. I must say, they've not figured out very much of that accurately, but it's fun to see.
DS: In your background, you attended The Citadel. And you're a military man, you served in Vietnam. Did that kind of help you with this head for intrigue and the Machiavellian interactions that we have in this book?
RJ: Actually, all that really helped me with is that I know what it's like to have somebody trying to kill you. I know what it's like to have a lot of people trying to kill you. And I also know what's it like to kill somebody. These things come through, so I've been told by people who are veterans of whether Vietnam, or of Korea, or combat anywhere – Desert Storm; I had a lot of fan letters from guys who were there.
As far as the Machiavellian part, as I said I grew up in a family of Byzantine complexity, in a city where there has always been a great deal of Byzantine plotting. The court of Byzantium never had anything on Charleston for either plotting or blood feuds. It came as mother's milk to me.
DS: Do you think that these books, such as they are, could only have been written by a southerner, and someone with a head for that?
RJ: These particular books could have only been written by a southerner because I write in a somewhat southern voice. My major influence as a writer, I think, is Mark Twain. And, there's no denying the southern voice of the books. If someone from another part of the country had written them, they would sound entirely different.
DS: Okay, and in our last few minutes . . . well, it almost defies actually talking in specifics about the books. But, at this point, do we know when the series is going to wrap up?
RJ: No, not really. What I know is that we're heading for a final scene that I have known from the beginning. I could have written it before I wrote the first book. And it would be very little different from what I would write today. I know what has to happen – those major events, those mountains I talked about – I know what has to happen between now and that final scene.
I really don't know whether it's going to be another two books, or another three, or maybe even another four. I don't know. I'm not going to make any promises to anybody, or any suggestions to anybody, about how many books. I've done that in the past and seen it taken as promise: "Jordan said. Jordan said, it's going to be this many books." Well, no I didn't, I said it might be. But by the time it gets out into print, and on the street, it's Jordan promised. Well, Jordan didn't promise, and Jordan isn't promising, so there.
DS: And by the time the final conflict happens and the books are wrapped up, will that pretty much tie up most of the loose ends?
RJ: The loose ends for the major plotlines, yes. I deliberately intend to keep a number of the minor plotlines open. There is no point in anyone's life when everything's all neatly wrapped up. There are always loose ends. But the major plotlines will be resolved, certainly.
DS: All right. Well, thank you very much for speaking with us. And again, we've been talking with Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series. And the newest book is Lord of Chaos. And thanks again for being with us.
RJ: Thank you for having me.
DS: That was our 1994 interview with the late author Robert Jordan. He was the author of the Wheel of Time series, the most recent volume of which is Knife of Dreams. And the final volume of which, A Memory of Light, will be published in 2009, both from Tor Books.
Robert Jordan passed away in 2007 at the age of 58. He was far too young, and he is deeply missed.
Thanks for listening. I'm your host Dave Slusher. And I'll catch you again when we meet back here for the next Reality Break.
URL for audio of podcast: http://www.realitybreakpodcast.com/2008/07/13/episode-3-robert-jordan/
URL for transcript: http://www.theoryland.com/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=5972