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Interviews: Charleston City Paper (Cover Story)

Summary:

Entries

16

Date

Mar 15th, 2003

Type

Verbatim

Location

Charleston, SC

Reporter

M.L. Van Valkenburgh

Links

alt.fan.robert-jordan

  • 1

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Robert Jordan scores big with his tenth Wheel Of Time novel—but is he really Tolkien's heir?

    Robert Jordan has lived his whole life in Charleston, as did his forefathers. It is his home, and he is very attached to it. He and his wife (and editor) Harriet have considered a host of other cities, many with brighter lights than our own, but they always come back to Jordan's roots.

    Robert Jordan

    "We've just liked it better than anywhere else. Other cities we've considered have been Paris, London, San Francisco, Melbourne—Australia, that is; I'm sure Melbourne, Florida is very nice, but I've never been there—but what's stopped us from moving is, Charleston is home," said Jordan in a recent phone interview granted prior to his whirlwind tour promoting his tenth book in the much acclaimed Wheel of Time series.

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  • 2

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Named Crossroads of Twilight, the new book shot straight up the charts to number one the instant it was released Jan. 7 and has stayed on the bestseller lists ever since. And no surprise. Jordan's fans are rabidly loyal. They have stuck with him through what is so far a 7,000 page epic and it's not over yet. The book was supposed to be released in November, but fans waited patiently when Jordan chose to push the date back to January.

    Robert Jordan

    "Of course there's some pressure," he says. "But I just couldn't finish it in time and it was a question of whether I was going to have it done right, or have it done quickly."

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  • 3

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    This attention to detail is one reason his books have garnered so much attention. Jordan himself is surprised by how long the series has taken him to write.

    Robert Jordan

    "I never thought it would be this many books. It's gained complexity. I thought it would be five or six books," he says. "The world (in the books) has gotten to be quite interesting. The people have gotten to be so important."

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  • 4

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    It's here that Jordan's passion for history comes through. His love for Charleston and his frustration that Charleston continues to be overlooked as a major player in the American Revolution are evident in the way he crafts the history of every city in the world in which his characters live—and the way that history gets twisted by the leaders of his cultures.

    Robert Jordan

    "There are bits and pieces (of Charleston) here and there, though I continue to stress that the Two Rivers (home of the series' three main protagonists) has no relation between the Ashley and the Cooper, but of course things filter through. It's impossible to write without keeping who you are and where you're from out of it," says Jordan.

    "History is mutable. It's so dependent on who you remember and what you remember. For instance, with the American Revolution, Charleston was written out of the history books because of the secession. You know, during the Boston Tea Party, we sent more food and aid to Boston than any of its neighboring colonies. But that's not something that children read about in school. The solid tones of the past are not that solid. They are a thin facade placed by partisan observers," he says.

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  • 5

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Jordan's background is not, however, in history. After a year at Clemson, he left school and did two tours of duty in Vietnam. He then enrolled at The Citadel where he got his degree in nuclear engineering and went to work for the government. But a badly injured knee that suffered complications nearly cost him his life and he turned to his real passion—writing.

    Robert Jordan

    "Writing is not something you make a living at unless you're very lucky. Go into something solid or safe like acting," he advises.

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  • 6

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Jordan has written 22 books altogether under a couple of pseudonyms (Robert Jordan is a pseudonym as well).

    Robert Jordan

    "The Wheel of Time had been banging around in my head before I began writing. I was thinking about the source of legends. Where do they come from? They're twisted by time. We don't know what actually happened. It made me think of the children's game 'Whispers.' You know the one—the first kid thinks of something and whispers it to the next kid, and it goes around in the circle, and the last kid has to say out loud what has been told to him, and it's never what it started out to be. Myths and legends are what the last kid stood up and told."

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  • 7

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Somewhat inevitably, perhaps, Jordan ended up being compared to fantasy's other master—J.R.R. Tolkein, of Lord of the Rings fame. And from a powerful source, too.

    "Jordan has come to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal..." crowed the New York Times. Perhaps it was his battle scenes, which portray a realism that only one who has experienced battle—Tolkien in the World Wars and Jordan in Vietnam—can truly contemplate, although Jordan says he reached further back for his sources.

    Robert Jordan

    "I was reading about 16th and 17th century battle scenes. You can't see it unless you're there, but basically, it's just mass chaos and confusion," he says.

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  • 8

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    But it was more likely something deeper. Tolkien had a great mastery over the world in which his characters lived. Indeed, that was why he wrote his stories at all. As a master linguist who was utterly fascinated by ancient British and Norse mythology, his goal was to create a separate world. He even created a language to go along with it—Elvish—which anyone with a great deal of time and inclination can learn.

    Jordan, too, has created a new world, but his world is a byproduct of his story.

    Robert Jordan

    "The beginnings of the story came first, then the world began to grow." he says.

    "I was rather shocked by the write-up in the New York Times comparing me to Tolkien. We have totally different backgrounds. He has an English voice and drew strongly from English and Norse traditions. I have a Southern voice. He had two women of note—Arwen and Eowyn. In my world's mythology, women tell half the story. I grew up around strong women. Women killed and ate the meek men in my world," he says.

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  • 9

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Unlike Tolkien, it is difficult if not impossible to pin down particular mythic traditions in Jordan's work. Tolkien made no secret of his interest in ancient British and Norse mythology—indeed, Frodo is named for a Norse hero. But although there are some typical hero features to Rand al'Thor, Jordan's main character, who, interestingly, makes only brief appearances in this latest book, the other leading characters don't have perceivable mythological analogs.

    Robert Jordan

    When this is brought to his attention, Jordan chuckles. "Then I've done it correctly. I was terrified various bits of mythology would be too obvious. I wanted it to be bits and pieces. I certainly didn't want to do any simply lifting of myths or legends. There are hundreds of books on King Arthur. There doesn't need to be another one."

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  • 10

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Another thing that sets Jordan apart from Tolkien is an ever-present sense of hope—something that has kept readers reading for 7,000 pages and will keep them reading 'til the end of the series, which Jordan says will take a minimum of two more books. No matter how bad the odds are against his characters, no matter that the world draws ever closer to its final battle with the Dark One, Jordan slips in enough events to stop readers from becoming fatalistic.

    Tolkien, on the other hand, was a profound fatalist himself. And, indeed, while his characters did, for the most part, achieve their ends, there is a sense of bittersweetness that pervades his works. His attitude is evident even in his relationships with the young children he left at home while off fighting World War II (and dreaming up his master work). Speaking metaphorically of the war with the Germans, he wrote his youngest son Christopher, saying, "We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. ... The War is not over (and the one that is or the part of it, has largely been lost.) But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on; and it is no good growing faint."

    It would be hard to picture Jordan announcing that wars are always lost to a young child; instead, he has a childlike sense of wonder and enjoyment of the world around him that his predecessor lacked.

    Robert Jordan

    "I like the Battery. The High Battery, particularly. (As a child) I liked its rickety nature. Now that they're fixing it up I'm not sure how I'll feel about it. But I loved the sense that at any moment the slates might drop you into the High Battery. My friends and I used to run through the streets and alleys, and things weren't as spruced up as they are now. Everything was overgrown with bamboo. It was wonderful," he recalls.

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  • 11

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    And though Jordan claims to identify with whichever character he's writing at any given moment, he took time out to mention rapscallion Mat Cauthon—the gambling, troublemaking part of his trio of young men (also including Rand al'Thor and Perrin Aybara), who has a way with ladies, and whose motto, "It's time to roll the dice," is echoed often in the books.

    Robert Jordan

    "Mat always surprised me. I'm always surprised at how many women fans like him," Jordan admits.

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  • 12

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    For new readers, Jordan entreats them to start with the first book in the series, The Eye of the World.

    Robert Jordan

    "You must start with that book. If you just pick up the new one you will be utterly confused within ten pages," he said. "Even if you only read Book One, and don't go on with the series, that's fine."

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  • 13

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    As for an ending to his series, Jordan's had it in his head for nearly two decades.

    Robert Jordan

    "I've known the last scene of the last book since 1984. I just can't put as much in to one book as I want. And various events have to happen before it can end," he says.

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  • 14

    Robert Jordan

    "I never envisioned this success," he adds. But he also wants to make one point very clear. "Many writers deny writing fantasy. They don't want to be locked in the ghetto. But I don't care. I say, I write fantasy."

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    With the growing success of the genre, thanks in part to the Lord of the Rings movies and the Harry Potter craze, perhaps the ghetto of fantasy is becoming gentrified and other writers will eventually be proud to say they write it as well.

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  • 15

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    Finally, Jordan has some advice for aspiring writers.

    Robert Jordan

    "Write, submit, talk. Nothing counts unless you do it. Do your research."

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  • 16

    M. L. Van Valkenburgh

    A day in his life is no carefree walk in the park. Anyone who thinks writing a book is easy is misled.