Tor.com Interview with Wilson Grooms by Richard FifeEdit
5 May 2010
Growing up, James Oliver Rigney Jr., better known as Robert Jordan, had two biological brothers. He also had a third brother, his cousin Wilson Grooms: the fabled “fourth of three”. I first met Wilson at JordanCon I, and I was amazed at his openness and candid way of speaking, especially about his brother/cousin. I never had the honor of meeting Jordan, but the times I have spoken to Wilson, both at JordanCons and at the Charleston signing of The Gathering Storm, have given me a glimpse into who Jim Rigney was. Because of this, I sought out an interview with Wilson so that you could share a bit of that feeling.
RF: You are often referred to as Robert Jordan’s biggest fan. What were conversations with him like, and did he ever bounce ideas for his writing off of you?
WG: Obviously, our conversations started a long, long, long time before The Wheel of Time. The ideas of The Wheel of Time, yeah, he bounced those off me while he was writing other stuff, because this is what he was thinking about.
Something I haven’t told you before, early on, when he was writing the Conan stuff—which I read because it is Jim’s work and I like Jim—it wasn’t my bailiwick. The Conan stuff was written for a particular demographic and he kept asking me “What do you think? What do you think?” I would never give in. So, finally, in response to the nitpicking “What do you think”, I started a narrative that sounded like a prologue leading into one of the Conan books, any one of them. Generic, but it was one of the Conan books. He just paused, and I looked at him and said “What?” He said, “Predictable, right?” And I said, “I didn’t say a thing, Jim.”
So yes, he’d bounce ideas off me and would say “You need to get away from this, soon as you can.” And the seven of them he wrote were great, but they were what they were. He talked about what he was going to do, and he noodled it around in his head for about ten years before he wrote it. After The Wheel of Time started being written, it was his work, so I didn’t talk to him much about it, or he didn’t talk to me much about it. If he was thinking about something or an idea, he might bounce it off of me, but because we lived four hours apart and were together less frequently, when we were together it was “Let’s go do something else.” Let’s go to dinner, or let’s go fishing, which he just absolutely loved to do. I liked fishing, he loved fishing, so I’d go fishing because it was time with him and time away from work and the books.
RF: The Wheel just passed its twentieth anniversary. Any reflections on where it has come from? Do you think that, starting back then, Jim thought it would turn into this?
WG: The answer is, obviously, pretty long. I know for sure that he did not think it would turn into this. Could he see all of the storylines and plots and this and envision that it could? Yes. But it was like lightning struck, and people liked it, which allowed him to expand on the story that he already had rattling around in his head. Had it not been that successful, he could have probably done the storyline in . . . three? Which is what he was kind of thinking at the beginning. Certainly not more than six. And it would have then been off to the next thing, which of course he already had in his head and was pretty close to ready to put pen to paper on. But, it took off, and it allowed him to tell that story in a greater detail.
One of the greater things that I hear from people about what they like in the books is the detail. And yeah, OK, I’ve heard about the middle books dragging on, but I can tell you, even that, for him it was about making sure that people understood the detail well enough so that when other things come along down the line, they could go “Aha! This is that!” Because, he could see it; he could see the tapestry and how it was sewn together. You can’t describe the whole tapestry at one time. You’ve got to describe it thread by thread by thread until you back up and see it. And that is what he was doing.
But no, never in his wildest dreams did he think it would be this successful and that it would turn into that many books. As evidence of that, this is not what he was going to be putting his name on. He thought he’d be putting “James Oliver Rigney Jr.” on a further work down the road and that this was a stepping stone towards that. Little did he know that the lightning would strike and this would become the great work.
But by putting the pen name, Robert Jordan, on these covers, it also afforded him some anonymity when the books started becoming a hit. As much as Jim loved the adoration and interaction with the fans, he’s just Bubba. He’s a private guy and was never more comfortable than when he was right there at home. The working office is just ten paces behind the back step of the house, and that was his world. He loved having people come to the home, but not so much going to them, because that is where he wanted to be. Writing with the pen name allowed him that anonymity to just be Jim Rigney at home, and some of the neighbors would say “I think that he writes. I’m not sure, but I think he does.”
RF: I’ve heard that when he entertained guests he would take them out back and beat them up with swords while thinking about ideas and fights.
WG: There was once, well, OK. Since his death we’ve shared his collection with some of the fans, because the collection of blades was enormous. And as we were considering doing this, my daughter Marisa, who is in her thirties now and whom I didn’t know knew anything about blades at all, said, “Certainly you’re not getting rid of the claymore!” And I said, “You know what a claymore is?”
So, think back to the movie Braveheart. We had gone down, the whole family was gathering for a fishing trip with the girls. Big deal, we are taking the whole family out, and the weather got in the way. Braveheart had just come out at the store, and we sat at home and watched it, the whole clan of us. She was in her mid-teens at the time, and right after the movie, he takes her out to the armory, which is the anteroom to this writing office, and shows her how to use the claymore, and does the sword-forms with her. And there’s this massive, five-and-a-half foot long double handed broadsword in my daughter’s hands, and he teaches her how to use it. And when I hear this, I said “Bubba, you did what with my little girl? You taught her how to use the damn claymore!”
There were times that he would discuss sword-forms—and this is where you asked if I discussed the books with him—and both of us had a military background. He would get the blades and things, so he could touch and feel; it was part of his research. Look at a katana, there is a strong resemblance to some of the swords in the story. The influence is there. Some of the smaller swords have a resemblance to kukris or krises, of which he had numerous. But, as much as he would read about how to use them, he would then practice the forms. He would dance those forms, and there were times that I’d be with him, and he would say “Do you think it would go this way or this way?” We are talking about a rather hulking guy in a very small confine, waving a blade very near my face. So, I was thinking “Yeah, Bubba, but back off a little. That looks good, but don’t trip. It would be hard to explain to the insurance company.”
RF: When did you first realize that he was ill?
WG: The first real indication that something was going on manifested itself in October 2005. He was on the last signing tour in Philly and took a day of private time and visited with my family at West Point, where my youngest son was a freshman. We did a backyard barbeque at a buddy’s house who was stationed there at the time and Jim inhaled the biggest steak you’ve ever seen in your life. It was a good day. And, sidenote, when Harriet and Jim left, a buddy of mine who I graduated with back in 1974, who was at that time the parish priest at West Point, said, “Oh man, Will, I’m glad they’re gone.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Those are the smartest people I’ve ever been around. It’s hard to talk to them.” He was laughing, and he said “They stretch you, don’t they?” I said, “Yeah, they do.”
Anyway, West Point is located in an area of New York, the central Hudson valley, that is all hills. And him walking around, he’d have to stop occasionally and lean against something, or lean down on his knees and catch his breath. And he’d get dizzy, and see spots. We realized that he needed to get this checked out. It was within a week or so after getting back from the tour that he called me and said “They know what it is.” And I was thinking it was something not as catastrophic as it turned out to be. You know, maybe he’s not eating well, not enough sleep, something. So I say “OK, what is it?” And matter-of-factly, he says “It’s amyloidosis, and it’s fatal, and I intend to beat it.” Just that way.
He thought he had seen it then, but in fact he had seen it years earlier when we were doing a walk in the Charleston area, across the Cooper River Bridge that they do annually. I reminded him that, on that walk, he had some breath issues. He thought about it a moment and said, “Ah, you’re right.” And the moral of that was that amyloidosis, which is now on everyone’s radar, is because of Jim, and the work Harriet has done since losing Jim. The V.A. now recognizes it, it is service related, so servicemen can be checked. It is being taught to doctors early on, so when they are looking at patients and they are talking about this or that symptom, and they see something that looks like a common cold, it may not be a common cold. It may well be the onset of amyloidosis, and if it is caught then, it is treatable.
So Jim told us then, “I intend to beat it.” He didn’t know that he would personally succumb to it, but in fact, through his efforts and through his notoriety, he is going to beat it.
RF: Wow. I’ve heard that story a few times now, and it still gives me chills. So, on a lighter topic, tell me exactly how Asha’man pins are worn. (Note: I’m currently wearing mine with the sword on my left, the dragon on my right).
WG: I thought you were wearing them correctly, but from my recollection of our military stuff Jim would never put a blade toward the neck. That is because we learned how to handle blades safely. They are a weapon and a tool, but not something to be feared because you have to handle them, but you have to know how to handle them. A blade was never drawn unless you intended to do something with it, either working with it as a tool or to do someone harm. So the symbolism of putting the blade toward the throat, I think, would have been contrary to what he was like.
But it was never really discussed in the books. They were on the collars. I say go with what feels right. If the dragon closer to your heart feels right, then wear it closer to your heart. If the sword feels closer to your heart, then go that way. But, he never said, but I would point the blade away from the neck.
RF: I hereby forbid you from using the letters R-A-F-O. Let’s talk about Asmodean.
WG: OK, what about Asmodean?
RF: Who killed him?
WG: OK, I know, but not because I figured it out. It’s because I flat out asked. I did, I just went up, and I’m just like you guys. I said, “I just can’t figure it out, let me know.” He said, “You could, if you just read it closer.” I said, “No time, Bubba, who killed him?” And he went, “[censored]”. And I went, “Yeah, makes sense.” And by the way, I asked Maria later on if that was correct, and Maria confirmed that it was correct and told me why.
I understand that it was one of those plotlines that he always wanted to have tied off, and if people couldn’t figure it out, it would be figured out for them. Around the dining room table, when we were first discussing what has got to be done and what not, that was one of the ones he wanted done. So yes, it will be there; you’ll get your answer.
The reason it hasn’t been there up to this point is because somebody figured it out. At a book signing, a fan said to him quietly “This is who did it, and this is why.” And he was right. And it wasn’t a question with an exclamation point on it, and he said “You got it. Spot on.” And he reasoned that if one person could get it from the text, then anybody could get it from the text. And one of the great things about Bubba is that he always wanted people to think. He liked to tell you stories and he might want to give some benefit of his experience in the reading, but he was very, very interested in what you thought and that you were thinking. So, he didn’t want to give that away until the very end.
RF: That was the longest RAFO I’ve ever been given. OK, so last question. So you know the ending now, straight from the bard’s mouth.
WG: I do.
RF: Do you recognize it from those first musings twenty-plus years ago?
WG: As with a lot of things in the books, it had morphed some. So, a couple weeks before he died, he explained it to me in excruciating detail ‘cause the two of us can talk for a while. There was extreme detail on the last scene: who was standing and who was not. What was going on. Who was casting glances at who. And where there was laughter. You are . . . OK, there’s enough hints. And who was casting a suspicious eye at someone when they were riding away. But other than that . . . hehe, yeah. But it had morphed and changed somewhat. He knew the ending, but there was some beautiful additions, it had . . . I don’t know.
WG: Yeah, matured. That is a very good term for it. It was not simplistic. And the reason Harriet said to do this is, well, did you sit in on the session yesterday with Larry? [about the expanded universe]
RF: No, I’m afraid I missed it.
WG: Alright, well, there was discussion of the outrigger novels by Jason Denzel and he handled that very beautifully. I wasn’t on the panel, but I added this, and I’ll give it to you too. The big reason that there are these three books, the three books to finish the main sequence, is that a couple weeks before Jim died he asked me who he thought could finish the books.
Now, all along, while he was talking about this piece of work, as we were fishing, one of the things he would say, and other people in the family had heard it too, was, “If I die, and somebody tries to finish this, you will kill them. And if you don’t, I will come back and haunt you and them. Because this is my work, and nobody is going to finish it but me. And if I go too soon, that’s it.” And we’d do that in laughter, but he was serious. This is his work.
So when he asks me, two weeks before he died, “Who do you think could finish it,” it set me back on my heels. Now, with that he told us that he wanted the work finished, really wanted it finished. So even though Harriet was devastated by the loss, we all were, we felt obliged to finish this work for him. That doesn’t mean there will be outriggers or what-have-you. There may be. But the big thing here is now about Harriet, and if at the end of this, if she is still having fun, who knows where it goes.
RF: Wilson Grooms, thank you.
WG: Of course.
Addendum: After the interview, Wilson and I went and talked with a few other people, and one of them was wearing a shirt that had the Asha’man pins screen printed on it. The discussion came back up, and I suggested that the sword towards the throat might have been meant as a reminder of the life-and-death struggle of saidin, and Wilson said he liked that idea, but would still personally keep the sword facing away.
URL for interview: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/05/jordancon-interview-with-wilson-grooms