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An Hour With Harriet

2012-04-30: I had the great pleasure of speaking with Harriet McDougal Rigney about her life. She's an amazing talent and person and it will take you less than an hour to agree.

The Bell Tolls

2012-04-24: Some thoughts I had during JordanCon4 and the upcoming conclusion of "The Wheel of Time."

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Default NPR Interview with Harriet McDougal - 4 January 2013

The audio is available here. Note that the full interview is linked alongside the text of a brief snippet that actually aired on NPR.


Petra Mayer: If you had to sum up the series for people who hadn't read it, what would you say?

Harriet: (laughs) Well . . . Gosh, I'm going to quote my husband, who was asked this. He said, "Well, I've written over a million words, and now you're asking me summarize it in six words: Cultures clash. Worlds change. Cope." That's only five words, but he didn't want to be wordy.

Petra Mayer: That's good though. (laughs) That's right up there with 'baby shoes, never worn.'

Harriet: Yeah, quite right. He did an amazing job of writing about real people in fantastic situations in which they had to make decisions on not enough information, and it might cost them their lives if they made the wrong decision. Well, when that is said, one would see that first responders–medical people, law enforcement people–were among the earliest group of identifiable fans. Fans in general range from geezers to 12-year-olds, both sexes.

Petra Mayer: I did meet a pretty big cross-section when I was at DragonCon this year. Describe for me sort of the beginning of the series. What was the spark? What made your husband think, "This is the story that I want to tell"?

Harriet: Well, he said to himself, "What would it be like to be told that you have to save the world, but in the saving you will murder everyone you love? What would that feel like?" That was the spark that started him.

Petra Mayer: What was your first encounter? Did he read you a little bit of it? Did he show you a manuscript?

Harriet: He showed me the first half of The Eye of the World, and I read it. (laughs) You'll love this–as I was reading it, I said, "Well, when they get to Tar Valon . . ." He said, "They don't get there in this book, Harriet." And I just looked at him. (laughs) But by that time, I had called Tom Doherty. I was at that point editorial director of Tor Books, and Tom was the publisher and founder. I said, "You've got to read this one." He said, "Yeah, why?" I said, "Because either after eight years of marriage, I've fallen into the 'wife trap,' or this book is absolutely wonderful." So he did read it, and the second half came toddling along, and Tom did a wonderful job of publishing it. Really, when we talk about 'going the whole hog,' well, Tom Doherty went the whole hog and all the piglets to launch the series. And the rest, I guess you'd say, is history.

Petra Mayer: How many books was this originally supposed to be? I don't think it was 14, right?

Harriet: It wasn't . . . it was six.

Petra Mayer: Oh, I thought it was three . . . okay.

Harriet: Well, Tom remembers three, but I remember six. And since we were living on my fees as an editor and my husband's advance money, I think maybe my memory is better. But . . . I could be wrong.

Petra Mayer: I'll go with yours. So what was your role? I know you picked the chapter titles, but describe for our listeners your role in sort of the creation and editing of the series.

Harriet: Well, in The Eye of the World in particular, in the beginning there were four boys leaving the village, but one of them didn't have anything to do. And my husband said, "Well, I had plans for him for the fourth book." And I said, “If you bore people, then there never will be a fourth book. Cut that boring kid out.” So he did.

Petra Mayer: Yeah. There are only three, in the final.

Harriet: Yes, that's right. The original cover art–the kind of brownish cover art that was on the inside cover–does show four, which is rather ghostly.

And another thing . . . Nynaeve . . . I helped him develop her by saying, "Why on earth is she always riding up there to talk to Moiraine? She doesn't seem to have anything to talk about." And I said, "Maybe she's trying to show her that she knows her way around herbal remedies." So a major piece of Nynaeve's character slid into place with that.

Petra Mayer: Oh, that she was the Healer and the Wisdom.

Harriet: Yes, the village Wisdom–for people who haven't read the books, we're getting into some detail–but you might be interested that the village the main characters come from has a mayor and a Council, who are all men. But the village Wisdom (laughs) is the wise woman of the village, and generally represents the power of women. It's a very egalitarian world as far as gender is concerned.

Petra Mayer: I did notice that, yeah. Although I think you're right–we are getting into kind of details, but I do want to come back to the worldbuilding a little bit later in the conversation. But without giving too much away about the final book–there's a lot of fighting because, you know, it is the Last Battle, right?

Harriet: Yes.

Petra Mayer: And I know that your husband had a military background. Can you talk about that, and how it may have influenced his writing?

Harriet: Yes, he served two tours in Vietnam, in the Army. He was a helicopter door gunner.

Petra Mayer: And a Citadel graduate, right?

Harriet: Yes, he was. He went to The Citadel as a Veteran student, and loved that institution and the Army with–with all his heart, you might say. A friend of his said to me once, "Some people take off the uniform, and that's that. Other people, the uniform sinks right into their skin." And my dear husband was one of the latter.

Petra Mayer: And it really shows in the books. There's a lot of tactics, a lot of military strategy.

Harriet: Yes, it does. The New York Times said at one point that the books reflect the last 30 years of American experience, including war, in the way that Tolkien's book reflected the last 30 years of the English experience when he was writing during World War II, that Robert Jordan's battle scenes are pretty wonderful.

Petra Mayer: That's an interesting parallel to Tolkien actually. One of the things that I try to say when I'm describing the series to people who don't know about is: it's kind of like Game of Thrones, but even more elaborate. Would you call that a reasonable comparison?

Harriet: (laughs) I haven't read Game of Thrones. Perhaps I'm the last living American who hasn't. So I really–I can't say. George Martin is a very nice guy, and I'm delighted to think of his success. I know that Robert Jordan liked the stuff.

Petra Mayer: So tell me about how you chose Brandon Sanderson to finish the series.

Harriet: Brandon Sanderson wrote a very beautiful eulogy for my husband on his web site. And a friend of mine was browsing around on the web, and saw it, printed it out–I'm not really a Luddite, but I'm computer resistant, you might say–and put it in front of me and said, "You really need to read this." And it was just a beautiful eulogy, in which he said he'd been reading Jordan since his middle teens, that Jordan had inspired him to become a fantasy writer. I believe he said that one reason his characters stay in one spot is that he felt he could never do the 'haring across the landscape' kind of fantasy that Robert Jordan did any better than Robert Jordan had done it.

Anyway, he was very loving towards the series. And I called Tom Doherty–Brandon was being published by Tor and said that one reason he wanted Tor was that it was Robert Jordan's publisher. So I got hold a copy of Mistborn, and spoke to Tom about his sales numbers, too. I was really tired and after I'd read about 47 pages, I fell asleep, which is no fault of the book–it was my exhaustion. When I woke up, the characters, the situation, the conflicts were all clear in my mind. And I thought, "Yeah, this guy can do it." And I called Tom to tell him that was my opinion, and Tom said, "You don't think you ought to read the whole book? It's an important decision." And I said, "Well yes, if I were hiring him to write a Brandon Sanderson novel, but I'm not. I'm hiring him to write a Robert Jordan novel." And we moused around a little bit, trying to think is there anybody that should be considered. And then after a while I called Brandon and said we were developing a short list–I didn't tell him how short the list was–but would he be interested in being on it. And he said he would. And a couple of weeks go by, and then we said, "Okay, you've got it."

And Brandon came east–he lives in Utah, but he came to Charleston–and I picked him up at the airport and brought him back to my house, and said, "Well, I have some soup for your supper." He said, "What I'd really like is the end." The end of the series–(laughs)–the material my husband had left. I said, "Okay. Here. Let me know when you're ready for your soup." So that's how that started.

Petra Mayer: Describe for me the process. Tell me about how Robert Jordan worked on the books in the last few months of his life.

Harriet: Mostly by dictation. He began by saying something about the last book one Saturday night. And two friends were visiting us at the time–one who very luckily had worked in her past as a court reporter–so she began taking copious notes. I tried, but I was just staring at my darling and listening to the story pour out of him–I was no go at taking the dictation. She was, although she thought the hero that he was talking about was the 'Dragoon Reborn'. (laughs) Dragoons are big in Charleston history. And she took very good notes, and the other friend went out at midnight to buy a tape recorder. So from there on we were just recording him and going back with questions, and that's how he worked in those last months.

Petra Mayer: And I understand that he–the last scene, which I think you're referring to–he wrote that completely himself?

Harriet: Yes, yes.

Petra Mayer: Did he have that in mind the whole time? Because I have to tell you, when I got the book in the mail last week, I turned to the end and read the last scene. I'm that kind of person.

Harriet: (laughs) Yeah, I think he had it in mind the whole time–from before he started The Eye of the World. He thought very far ahead. I remember once we went out to lunch just after he'd finished The Eye of the World, and over lunch he wanted to talk about what would happen to a Maiden of the Spear who had a child. And that doesn't turn up until where? Book four?

Petra Mayer: I don't think so, yeah.

Harriet: But he worked far ahead. And he did have the overall arc of the story in mind all the time–think of the prophecies.

Petra Mayer: That's true, yeah. What does it feel like for you? I mean, this undertaking has been more than twenty years in the making, I guess. I mean the first one came out when? 1990?

Harriet: Uh-huh.

Petra Mayer: What's next for you? How does it feel to sort of bring this–at least the initial creation phase of it–to a close?

Harriet: Well, it's a tremendous mix of emotions. It's very satisfying to have been able to complete his great work for him, when he couldn’t do it himself. That's joyful, but it's also very sad. I love these characters. I mean, they've been my friends for, as you say, over twenty years. And now they're kind of set free. It is a retirement for me, except for the Encyclopedia of The Wheel of Time, which I am still working on with my colleagues. And that will be published when it gets done!

Petra Mayer: (laughs) I think Wheel of Time fans are patient.

Harriet: Since there are more than 2000 named characters in the series, it's quite an undertaking. But that is less emotionally involving for me than the work on the series has been.

Petra Mayer: What's next for you? I mean, you are a professional editor. Is it time to relax, or do you have new projects?

Harriet: Well, I do have a project. I have a neighbor who is completing a new translation of The Iliad. And that will probably be my swan song as an editor. And I did buy an embroidery kit, which I sort of haven't opened. Maybe I'm not really cut out to sit around doing embroidery. I did, when I quit smoking a long time ago.

Petra Mayer: You could make a Dragon banner.

Harriet: (laughs) Yeah, that would be a thought.

Petra Mayer: So here comes the silly portion of the interview. Well, it's not so silly–I mean, I guess you talked about sort of feeling like the characters were your friends. So who's your particular friend? I know I love Egwene. I always think I'd be Green Ajah, but secretly probably I'm really a Brown.

Harriet: (laughs) I'm a Blue. Robert Jordan looked a lot like Perrin, so I have a particular soft spot for Perrin.

Petra Mayer: Perrin is also the one whose marriage you hear the most detail about.

Harriet: Yeah, I hope not our marriage. He said all the women in the series had a little bit of me in them. The evil women–that was taken from me saying, "You forgot to take the garbage out again." (laughs)

Petra Mayer: (laughs) Wow, I can't see Lanfear hassling somebody about the garbage, but I'll take your word for it.

Harriet: Yes, but that's how he felt–I was acting like Lanfear.

Petra Mayer: So, this is a silly question. I know fans of this series spend a lot of time fantasy casting the movie in their heads. I know I have–I picked Liam Hemsworth for Rand. Have you thought about that, and who would you cast?

Harriet: No, I haven't. I'm more interested in the words than in, I guess, the images. Once they're separated from the words, they're not as exciting to me.

Petra Mayer: Interesting. And I guess as long as it stays sort of on the page, then you can make it look however you want in your head.

Harriet: Yeah.
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