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SFBC (Science Fiction Book Club) Chats with Robert Jordan
SFBC: I've read your Conan books. I've read The Wheel of Time series, all of it to date. I'm almost finished with your last one, Winter's Heart. How do you do it? How did you come up with such a huge project?
RJ: I had a lot of different ideas perking in the back of my head about the distortion of information. Whether you are distant from an event in time or in space, it doesn't matter. The further you are from the event, the less likely you are to know it actually happened.
At the same time, I was thinking about the source of legends, that some of them must be connected to actual events, actual people, but of course, would be distorted in that way by being passed orally for generations perhaps, before they were written down. Perhaps for hundreds of years.
I was thinking about what it would really be like to be tapped on the shoulder and told you were born to be the salvation of mankind, and oh, by the way, you'll probably have to die in the end...There's no rule book, kid, and you can't get out of the game. You've been drafted so get in there and win one for the Gipper.
And there were a lot of things perking around. The only odd point is, I guess, is that really at the same time, I thought of what had come to be the last scene of the last book and it seemed to me that it was very interesting, and I wanted to figure out how I could get to that last scene. After a number of years of poking this around in my head, I had a rough outline of The Wheel of Time.
SFBC: How do you keep all the characters and plot lines that you have come up with straight?
RJ: The plot lines are in my head. I have lots of notes on the characters on my computer. Notes on the various countries, the cultures, the organizations, that sort of thing, the history of the world. On flora and fauna. All of that.
SFBC: That must be exhaustive.
RJ: They're fairly large files. The largest are the Aes Sedai files, there are two of those. One lists every Aes Sedai that I have mentioned in the books and some that I haven't, with everything I know about her. These are normally the things that have been mentioned in the books, but other things that may never be mentioned that give me a picture of this character. And there's another file that covers the history of The White Tower, the laws, the customs, political organization, how the hall of the tower works, organization of the arges, recruiting, training, all of those things. Tower grounds.
SFBC: Are there any plans for The Wheel of Time encyclopedia?
RJ: Perhaps after I finish, but I have to tell you, just the file on the Aes Sedai is about, oh, it's now just getting to be too big to put on a 144 floppy... And the same with the one on the Tower, so I'm very glad I have an LS120 drive. The other files are not that big. I might do something, a concordance or encyclopedia when the series is done, so it can be complete, but I don't know.
SFBC: Someone mentioned to me that your wife is your editor?
RJ: Yes, she is.
SFBC: What's that like?
RJ: Interesting. She's very good. I think she's one of the best editors in the business, and luckily, she's been willing to keep editing me, although she's given everybody else up.
SFBC: She plays a really big part in keeping track of all your plot lines and characters?
RJ: No, no. I do that myself, but she's the first set of eyes. An editor -- the first thing an editor does is tell you when you've failed. When you've failed to convince her that this person would say or do this thing. An editor is the person who goes in there and says, "You've told me more about this than you need to." Or, "here you didn't convince me." She has a wonderful instinct for it and for the whole rest of the editorial job, of course.
SFBC: I was looking through the manuscript and noticed the words "Revision 5" and so forth.
RJ: That's before it ever gets to her. When I make what I consider a major change in a chapter, I notch up the revision once. Not for small changes, but if you have a manuscript there, you'll notice that the revisions numbers get to be less as they go further into the book. That's because I am constantly re-writing, constantly thinking of a way I can do something better earlier on. I often go back and re-write things that I've done earlier.
SFBC: Is it true that you also write under other pen names. Dance reviews by Chang Lung, for instance.
RJ: I haven't used any of those for a long time, but I used to... and that was partly a hobby...And I've written westerns. under the name Jackson O'Reilly. And Regan O'Neil for historical fiction.
SFBC: What subjects interest you the most?
RJ: Oh, Lord. Almost anything. Half the books I read are nonfiction and it can be about anything under the sun. I'm just finishing up a book called Strange Victory, which is about the German defeat of France in 1940. What's fascinating about that is why it happened, because as the author points out, any time computers are allowed to run that scenario--the German invasion, the French defense--the French always win. The French had more tanks and the tanks were just as good. They had more men and the men were just as well trained. They had as many airplanes. Their airplanes were as good.
But what happened was, the French did a couple of things that were very wrong. One, they had a high dependence on advanced technology and the arrogance, if you will, that comes from that, that says that technology will win for us.
SFBC: And they were relying on that?
RJ: They relied on that, and the second thing that happened was that because they had suffered tremendous casualties in World War I, they were very reluctant to suffer casualties again. The politicians were and the country was. And the third thing was that because of the reluctance to suffer casualties, they made all of the decisions be reviewed in Paris. So they had a slow decision-making cycle. If you put those together, does it give you an image of anybody else in the world right now, maybe?
Anyway, the next book up is called The Code Book, and it's about development of codes and ciphers throughout history. As I said, I read about anything and everything... Whatever catches my eye.
SFBC: Does this wide range of interest also help in the development of your cultures and the incredible texture of the history in your books?
RJ: I think it does. History fascinates me. I read a lot of history, and I suppose \ what you might call cultural anthropology, also fascinates me. I like to read about other cultures. Specifically, not just about cultures now, but historically. You find surprising things.
SFBC: Past kingdoms?
RJ: Well, it's that, and more. Well, I'm reading a travel book about China that was written in the 1870s. Travel books at that time often told you everything about a culture that the writer could find out. I discovered that block watches, public self-confession, are very old traditions. If you were accused of something, you were expected to come forward and make a confession before your neighbors of what you had done wrong. And the large character wall posters, things that we think of as being modern and part of the Communist regime, are really very old.
SFBC: Considering some of the cultures that you've come up with in your books, like the Seanchan, or The Aiel, even the building up of their history, are there any real world equivalents to them?
RJ: Not one-to-one. Not for any given cultures Well, the Aiel for instance, there are bits of Berber and Bedouin cultures. Zulu. Some things from the Japanese historical cultures. From the Apache Indians. Also from the Cheyenne. I put these things together and added in some things that I also wanted to be true about the culture beyond these real cultures.
Then I began to figure out if these things were true, what else had to be true and what things could not be true. That can be very simple. If you have a culture living in a land where water is scarce, well, obviously they value water. It's necessary for human survival. On the other hand, if they live in the middle of a waterless waste, dealing with crossing rivers or lakes is going to be difficult for them. They don't know how.
SFBC: It makes perfect sense.
RJ: Those are two very simple and obvious points, but you put together a lot of things like that and you begin to get an image of what the culture is like.
SFBC: Even the way you have these characters talking about people who live with a lot of water, calling them "wetlanders" and so forth is very interesting. The concept of the "World of Dreams," Tel'Aran'Rhiod -- when did you dream that up?
RJ: I'm not sure of when that exactly came to me. I'm not certain if I could point to a source, because I cannot remember anything of that sort. It's quite possible that I read about something, some myth or legend somewhere that included this, but by the time I began writing, I had the concept of Tel'Aran'Rhiod quite solidified, you might say.
SFBC: And the concept of the Source and the True Source, the male half, the female half -- when did you come up with that?
RJ: Again, I can't point ... I thought about what I was going to write for quite a long time. The first thoughts that would turn into The Wheel of Time, I had perhaps ten years before I began writing. And after the ten years, I realized I had a story.
SFBC: I noticed that you have a degree in physics. Any chance of getting into the quantum mechanics of the concept of traveling pertaining to The Wheel of Time?
RJ: (Laughing) I doubt it.
SFBC: I read somewhere that The Wheel of Time series has been described as Tolkien-esque ...was this intentional?
RJ: In the beginning, I wanted a little bit -- at the beginning of The Eye of the World, I wanted a little bit of a Tolkien-esque feel. For perhaps the first 100 pages, I wanted to have that feel simply to establish that this is the foundation. Tolkien began so much of modern fantasy. Not all of it comes from him certainly, but The Lord of the Rings is this huge mountain casting a shadow over everything. Then, having said this is what you expect and this is the familiar ground, now, kiddies, we're going someplace else.
SFBC: You'd better believe it I was expecting a certain thing the Eye of the World, and then you started showing the way people use magic, something Tolkien never did. You blew our minds with even Rand destroying cities ….Do you see these things in your head? Do you envision them?
RJ: I do. I assume everybody has a large visual component of their thoughts, where you visualize a scene or how things are working out. Our thoughts are not like reading a page. We don't see words in our heads to describe a scene. We see the scene and describe what we're seeing.
SFBC: Of all the characters in the Wheel of Time, which ones do you relate to the most?
RJ: I suppose that Lan in many ways typifies the sort of ideals and aspirations that I was raised to aim at, but on the other hand, I've had a couple of women tell me that I remind them of Loial more... Maybe they just mean the beard.
SFBC: I hope they don't mean the big ears and big hands.
RJ: ...big nose. I think it's the books and the beard maybe.
SFBC: If you had to pick three characters in your books, who would be your favorites?
RJ: I can't pick three characters who are my favorites because my favorite is always whoever I am writing at the moment; that is, whoever is the point of view character for any given scene, I like that person and I like that person more than anyone else. I think that's a very basic human emotion. We like ourselves. And the reason that sacrificing yourself for someone else is such a big thing is because we do like ourselves very strongly. Now, if I don't like that character that I'm writing more than I like any of the others, then the character doesn't come out as being real.
There's something tainted in the writing. Something false.
SFBC: That's an excellent point.
RJ: Because I'm trying to get inside that character's skin, inside their head while I'm doing it. My wife will surprise the devil out of me. I'll come into the house with the day's writing, and before I've even said a word, she'll say to me, "Oh, you've been writing Padan Fain today, haven't you?"
And what's really frightening about it is one, I haven't said a word, and two, that even if it wasn't Padan Fain, it was somebody else that you really don't want to be alone with.
SFBC: That's really giving some life to the characters.
RJ: That's what I try to do. I think the characters are the most important part. The story flows from character. That's something I've always believed. If your characters are not as real as you can make them, then everything else begins to fall apart.
SFBC: By doing it that way, it gives your work a three-dimensional quality that makes it seems like if anything happens to a certain character, the reader feels, "oh, no, this isn't fair!"
RJ: Thank you.
SFBC: I have to say that one of my personal favorites is Nynaeve.
RJ: Well, a lot of people like Nynaeve. I've noticed something interesting over the years about Nynaeve. I have had a number of women tell me how much they dislike Nynaeve. But what's interesting is that when I talk with other people who know a woman who's told me how much she dislikes Nynaeve, it turns out that she, herself, is a lot like Nynaeve. What this means, I have no idea.
SFBC: One last question because I see our time's almost up. How does it all end?
RJ: Read and find out.