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Default Fine Print Interview with Robert Jordan - 20 January 2003

From The Agony Column archive. (Or alternatively, the .mp4 version.)

My name is Rick Kleffel, and welcome to Fine Print. Today our guest is best-selling author Robert Jordan. Mr. Jordan graduated from The Citadel with a degree in physics, served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and was decorated with Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with V, and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry. He then went on to become one of the best-selling and top-rated American fantasists. His latest novel is Crossroads of Twilight. It’s the tenth novel in his Wheel of Time series. His last book, Winter’s Heart, was a number one New York Times best seller. Welcome to Fine Print, Mr. Jordan!

RJ: Thanks for having me.

RK: Your resume isn’t exactly what one might expect for a writer. Tell us how and when you began reading and writing.

RJ: Well, I began reading very early. I started reading in part because my older brother read to me when he was stuck babysitting me; he was twelve years older than me. And one day, I remember, he stopped reading because my parents came home, and he was off; I wanted to finish the book, so I took it down and finished it on my own. It was White Fang. I was four. Now, I'm not saying I managed every word, but I managed enough to be able to finish the book and understand what had happened, what was going on. By the next year, I was reading well enough that I did understand every word of Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer, and From the Earth to the Moon, and that was the year I decided I wanted to become a writer. But I didn't write anything then; I knew I didn't have anything to say. I knew when I was a teenager that I didn't have anything to say, and when I was in my twenties I didn't have anything to say. I became an engineer; I was injured quite badly, spent a month in the hospital—a full month recovering—and I decided then that life was too short.

RK: What kind of books inspired you first to write?

RJ: Well, in a way, it was the three I mentioned—Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and From the Earth to the Moon—those are the first books that made me decide that I wanted to be a writer, books like that, write books like that one day. I will not mention the book that actually made me start writing, because it was a matter of tossing a book across the room, because I was stuck in bed and grumpy, and saying, "Oh god, I can do better than that!" And of course when you've said something like that, you have to put up or shut up, so I made my effort, I am.

RK: More than put up!

RK: How did you first find publication?

RJ: Well, I''s a long story. I'll try to make it short. The first novel I wrote was accepted by Donald Wollheim at DAW books. Then I asked for some changes in the contract, and he withdrew the offer. Later, that manuscript was sold to Jim Baen at Ace Books (at that time), and he was replaced by Susan Allison, who didn't like it, so she reverted the rights to me. Then that book led to me meeting a woman named Harriet McDougal who was starting her own publishing company, and that led to me writing a novel called The Fallon Blood, which her publishing company published. And I should add very quickly that, after that book was published, she and I started dating, and we've been married for twenty-odd years.

RK: Wow, that's a great story!

RJ: Well, that's the short form—the simple version.

RK: The Wheel of Time series is a huge achievement, running somewhere in the vicinity of eight thousand pages. What were your thoughts when you began this epic?

RJ: Well, I thought, 'I'm starting something rather large here, and I hope it works.' It was not, when I began, as large as it is now—that is, I didn't think it was going to be as many pages. I believed, at the start, that I could tell this story perhaps five volumes, maybe six...but I thought five. And I had worked very hard to talk my publisher into letting me do that. He was willing to accept it, but five volumes...that's unusual; you don't do that. It was a single volume, or a trilogy, was the acceptable thing. And I was also afraid that once I got into it that the earlier books would go out of print, because that happens. Hardcover goes out of print normally when the paperback comes out, and then after a few years the paperback goes out of print, and since I knew I was writing something that you had to start reading at the beginning—you must start this with The Eye of the World; you cannot begin with the new book, with this latest book—I was afraid in the beginning that The Eye of the World would be out of print by the time the last book came out. But I managed to luck out. The Eye of the World has been in print continuously in hardcover for thirteen years now.

RK: That in itself is certainly a huge achievement!

RK: Now, what kind of story were you hoping to tell at the outset of the writing of this series, and what kind of story has it become as you've discovered it?

RJ: It's become exactly the sort of story I thought it was going to be at the start. I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I am telling the story I wanted to tell. That hasn't changed; it's headed for exactly the same conclusion that I planned in 1984. What has changed, you might say, is my understanding of how many pages it was going to take to tell this story. When I started The Eye of the World, I thought that I could put x amount of the story into that book, only to discover that I could put maybe two thirds of x into that book, and with each book I have written, I have found that. I sit down, and I plan what I want to put into this particular book, and I think I can put x amount of the story, and discover that I can only put half that, or two thirds of it, or three quarters in some cases. With Crossroads of Twilight, that is a 700-page hardback—almost 700 pages—and I realized after a while that if I put everything into it that I wanted, it was going to be a 1200-page hardback, maybe 1300 pages, and it would be another year before it was available, before I was finished with it. So, since I had already had to tell my publisher he had to move it once, I didn't think I could tell him that again.

RK: Well, I don't think your readers want to wait that long either. They're slavering to get this story.

RK: Now, why did you feel the need to create an entire world to tell the story of the characters you've created?

RJ: Well, fantasy offers certain flexibilities that are not available in mainstream fiction, for example. Mainstream fiction has mostly areas of gray. You can occasionally talk about stark blacks and stark whites in fantasy. Now, I believe there is such a thing as good and such a thing as evil. There is right, and there is wrong. Situational ethics is the most misunderstood and misused term in the world, perhaps. There are times when it is difficult to say what is the right thing to do, and what is the wrong thing, or even to say what is good and what is evil. But in a great deal of contemporary fiction, the attitude seems to be that, because it's difficult to tell, 'Well, we don't really need to make the effort. We'll just drift along and do what comes our way, and if it's good, or if it's bad, or if it's evil, well, that's someone else's perception, isn't it? That's all it is.' Well it isn't. These things exist—good and evil, right and wrong—and it's worth spending a little time and a little effort to try to figure out which is which even when it's hard.

RK: Wow!

RK: Now, your books are described as fantasy, even by you, but they don't really read like what usually falls under that label.

RJ: Well, I'm not sure what usually falls under that label. I suppose you mean great fire-breathing dragons, or something, or damsels in distress. The problem is, of course, there are a lot of things that are fantasy that aren't called fantasy. You know, A.S. Byatt writes fantasy, and so does Doris Lessing. The magic realists are all fantasists. But, if you have ghosts, if you have ESP, if you have anything that is unreal, and unscientific, you're writing fantasy. But if you want to stay out of the ghetto—if you're afraid of that word, 'fantasy'; you think, 'Aw, they slapped that word on me, I gotta be tarred, ah, never get out of it, never, never escape it,'—then you say that you're writing 'magic realism', or you're writing something else, that you are writing 'a novel', with perhaps a few...., ahem, 'fabulist'—"Fabulist, yes, that's a good one; we'll call them 'fabulist' elements..."—Well, I write fantasy.

RK: That's great.

RK: Now your novels have a more personal feel than what is usually called 'epic', yet they are also clearly epics. How do you strike the balance between the personal feel and the closeness you bring to your characters, and the grand epic gestures and battles that you're also talking about?

RJ: Well, I do this by standing on my left foot, closing my right eye, and putting my right foot on top of my head, and then I begin writing. Uh, I don't know how I do it; I just do it!

RK: [laughs] Okay.

RK: Now, one thing that I find quite interesting about the Wheel of me it has an almost science-fictional feel. The prime driving force for the world is the ability that many characters possess to channel the One Power. Could you describe your hierarchy of psychic powers and talk about how you've developed it almost as a technology?

RJ: Well, I did think of it as a technology. One of the worst things that any writer who is writing about magic or some non-magic method of doing things—some non-scientific method of doing things, I should say—the worst mistake that those writers could make is to think that everything goes, anything goes. There are always rules; there are always limits; there are always prices to pay; there are always trade-offs. Asimov may have been right that,, actually it wasn't Asimov, it was Campbell? It was...

RK: Arthur C. Clarke.

RJ: Arthur C. Clarke; you're right! "Any sufficiently advanced science will seem to be magic."

RK: Exactly.

RJ: But it only seems to be magic to you and me; to the people whose science it is, it is actually going to be science, and they will be very well aware of the limits and the constraints and so forth. So I designed this as if it were a technology; I said that the world had been previously powered by this technology; the technology of the Age before the Breaking of the World was based on the use of the One Power. Their machinery used the One Power; their flying machines used the One Power; their toasters used the One Power. The One Power was how they operated their society, their civilization.

RK: And yet, of course as the technology in these books has spread to those beyond the select—the Aes Sedai—the old social hierarchies of this world start to crumble.

RJ: Well of course; that always happens. I'm writing about a world at a time of change. Change is uncomfortable, and there are two sorts of people: there are people who don't want change, and there are people who do want change. Both of these people are going to be disappointed. The people who don't want change are going to be disappointed because the change is going to come no matter what. The people who do want change are going to be disappointed because the change is almost never going to be anything like what they want. And what I am writing about is a world where the changes are coming to their society, to their world—changes have been coming now for some time—and the characters have to live through it, ride these changes, and make the best of it they can.

RK: We're here with Fine Print talking with Robert Jordan, author of the book Crossroads of Twilight. My name is Rick Kleffel.

RK: Now, you have a neat solution to one of the old problems of fantasy, for me at least, which is the 'Why don't they have guns?' question. Could you talk about the society of Illuminators, and how that technology has played into your narrative thus far, and maybe give us an idea of how it will play out as the series progresses?

RJ: Well, I'm not going to give you any idea of how it plays out. If you spend any time on the net—at least, on any of the several hundred if not several thousand websites that discuss my books—you will have run into the acronym 'RAFO'. R-A-F-O. 'RAFO' means 'Read And Find Out'. Now, I postulated a world where gunpowder is the secret of a guild: the Guild of Illuminators, people who make fireworks. Nobody else knows how to make fireworks—knows how to make gunpowder—except this guild, and they have managed to preserve their secret for quite a long time. And I think part of the reason why I thought that this could happen were two things that I came across in separate places. One was evidence of discovery of steel—the first manufacturer of steel, which was discovered...we found countless place where the first smith discovered how to make steel—or at least a smith discovered how to make steel, and by all the evidence, no one else in that area had known how to make steel before him—but of course when he could make steel, his weapons were much better than anybody else's. He had provided steel swords to use against bronze, or iron,, he had sort of a magic sword here, didn't he? And he sure as hell didn't teach anybody else how to do it, so from the time that men began discovering steel, and the secret began dying with them, to the time when steel began to be manufactured semi-widely, was about a thousand years. The first time that gunpowder—that we can find evidence of gunpowder being used as a weapon—was in China, when the inhabitants of a besieged city made huge fireworks and dropped them over the wall onto soldiers trying to climb ladders, siege ladders up over the walls of the Chinese city. It's not a very efficient way to use gunpowder, but what's interesting is that it was something over a thousand years after gunpowder, by the evidence, had been discovered in China, and for all of that time, it had been used for nothing more than making fireworks, firecrackers, just...that was it. That was the whole use. So, we have a world where there are no guns because nobody knows how to make gunpowder, except for this guild, and they're not going to put the secret around.

RK: That's very clever.

RK: Now, the world you created is filled with very complex politics, and much of the work reads almost like a political thriller. How do politics in the real world affect your portrayal of politics in the Wheel of Time?

RJ: Well, I'm not certain I can actually point at anything and say, "That has affected this." I have lived through my own time, so of course what's happened affects what I write. I don't think it is possible for any writer to filter his or her times—his or her life—out of what he or she writes. And that's awfully damned awkward; I'm going to stop using 'he or she', if you don't mind.

RK: Absolutely.

RK: A large portion of this series involves complex battles and wars fought for a number of reasons. How does your experience of war in the real world feed your portrayal of war in the world you've created?

RJ: Primarily because I know the state of confusion that exists in battle. If people are actually trying to kill you, and you are actively trying to kill them, because that's the way it works, then you usually don't know a great deal except what is right in front of your face. Everything else, even fifty yards away, can become a total mystery, and that total mystery fifty yards away might kill you. But then, that doesn't change.

RK: Now, the Wheel of Time also describes a world in which there is a spectrum of slavery. Could you tell us how you created this range of relationships?

RJ: Well, when you're talking about a spectrum of slavery...the entire concept of slavery is unknown to the inhabitants of the world in...the central nations where we've met our primary characters. The later appearance by Seanchan—people from over the ocean—bring in complexes of slavery, and I've lifted a number of these out of history in various ways, and various places. There have been many times in which slaves rose to political power, in which entire bureaucracies of civil servants consisted totally of slaves, and of course there have been slave armies, the Janissaries being the most famous and perhaps the fiercest.

RK: Now, your characters are complex and often conflicted. Though they inhabit a world that you've created, they seem real, and clearly readers feel that they can relate to them. How do you balance keeping your characters true to their world, but relevant to ours?

RJ: I don't care whether they're relevant to ours. I try to keep them true to themselves, which is not difficult really—I know what sort of person each character is supposed to be; I know what experiences that character has had, and how those experiences have changed that character, or not changed that character—so, it's very simple. I've often said, "I created these people. I'm an Old Testament God with my fist in the middle of their lives." It's very easy to run them.

RK: Now, [Wheel] of Time also has a lot of strong, decisive women characters. I need to know, what made you bring women to the forefront in a genre that is dominated by men in leather diapers?

RJ: Well, I decided at each point who was the best to narrate a scene, who was the best point of view character to 'see' a scene...who is the person I wanted the reader to 'see'...through whose eyes did I want the reader to see this scene. And after The Eye of the World, that came out to be about half the time women. The women are strong for a number of reasons. One, because I decided that women could talk about the feminist struggle a lot more than I could—a lot better than I could—therefore I would write a world where the feminist struggle happened so long ago that nobody even remembers it. If a woman is a magistrate, or a merchant, or a dockworker, or a wagon driver, or a blacksmith—well, somebody might say it's a little unusual to see a woman blacksmith because you need a lot of upper body strength for that—but for the rest of it, that's no big deal. That's just the way it is, and I thought this world would hang together because for 3000 years of created history, the major center of political power in the world has been the White Tower which is all female, and has been all female for 3000 years. But mainly, perhaps, I wrote a world with a lot of strong women because of my own family. See, all of the men in my family were strong. All of them. Because the women in my family killed and ate the weak ones.

RK: Okay! That'll do it.

RK: The complexity of your world and your plot suggest that you must have some kind of self-created encyclopedia to which you can refer. Can you tell us about your Wheel of Time database?

RJ: Well, a little bit. There are copious notes on my computer about societies and cultures and groups. As an example, the Aes Sedai have two—the women who can wield the One Power, channel the One Power—there are two files on Aes Sedai, each of about 2MB. One is the history of Aes Sedai, the culture of Aes Sedai, the laws, the ways they run things, how they recruit, how their structure is...the internal structure of their organization. And the other is lists of individual characters—individual Aes Sedai—and all the information I might know or might need to know, or think I might need to know about these characters. I didn't sit down and simply put this together, now. A lot of people are interested in process; they want to know how you did it. The thinking seems to be, "If I know how he did it, then I can do the same thing." This all accreted. It built up very slowly. I made a few notes about this character, and a few notes about that character, and then eventually realized that I had far too many notes on too many different kinds of characters in this one file. It was getting unwieldy to find who I wanted when I wanted, so I split it up and took some characters out, and gave those characters individual files, and then the rest of it began to grow, and I thought, "Well, I have the files here, about these people, and I have these files over here about different nations, and that's getting unwieldy, so I'll split the nations up into individual nations, and I'll move the files about the people; if they're a citizen of that nation, I'll move them to that file on that nation," and it slowly accreted to where there is a huge database on this world, and a lot of different areas in this world.

RK: Now, how would you bring someone who has never read your books—and indeed might only have become aware of the high potential of the fantasy genre with the recent motion picture adaptations of The Lord of the Rings—to start the Wheel of Time? What would you tell them?

RJ: Well, if they liked The Lord of the Rings, I'd tell them The New York Times claims I'm the American heir to The Lord of the Rings, to Tolkien! The American heir to Tolkien. That's what Ed Rothstein said in The New York Times. But you would have to imagine Tolkien with no elves, no dwarves, no unicorns, no dragons, no hobbits—just people, written with an American sensibility instead of an English sensibility, and where Tolkien drew on the myths and legends of the English countryside and Norse myths and legends, I have drawn on the myths and legends of every country in the world based largely on the fact that we're a melting pot, and there are very few nations in the world that do not have people from the nation living here in the United States.

That's great; the Wheel of Time is the melting pot fantasy!

RJ: Yes, you might put it that way.

RK: Thank you very much! We've been talking with Robert Jordan, author of Crossroads of Twilight. His Wheel of Time series is one of the all time best-selling fantasy series. Welcome to Fine Print, Mr. Jordan. Thank you very much!

RJ: Thank you for having me.
Qui nos rodunt confundantur, et cum iustis non scribantur.

Last edited by Terez; 09-26-2011 at 12:48 AM.
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