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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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Interviews: Writing on the Web Interview







  • 1

    Robert Jordan

    If you want to be a writer, go be an accountant. If you want to write, write.

    I know a lot of people who want to be a writer, and it's a very different thing from wanting to write.

    It doesn't do any good to think about writing. It doesn't do any good to talk about writing. It doesn't do any good to go to cafés and sit there in your black turtle neck sweater with a coffee or beer and impress the girls with the fact that you are a writer, if what you have is the same three chapters sitting in a drawer that have been there for the last five years.

    You write. You send it to a publisher. And when you've put it in the mail, you start writing again.

    You send it to a publisher because the act of creation is not complete until you have an observer. It doesn't matter whether it's writing, or painting, or sculpting. If a painter sticks a painting in a closet, if a sculptor throws a drop cloth over the sculpture, the act of creation is not complete. Completion happens when you put it in front of an observer.


  • 2

    Robert Jordan

    I don't think so many people want to write—I think people want to be writers. Dorothy Parker said, 'I love having written, but I hate writing.' I think it's the same with a lot of people. And everybody believes that they have a story in them—everyone wants to believe that they could do it if they wanted to.

    They think they have a story, and maybe they do. But just because you have a story inside you, doesn't mean you can write it, any more than having a gallstone means you can pass it. I no longer believe that everybody can write. It's not that easy.

    When parents ask me how they can encourage little Johnny's talent for writing, I say that no good writer had a Norman Rockwell childhood. It's a truthful answer. I look at all the good writers I know personally, the good painters, the good sculptors, and they all had unquiet, even unpleasant childhoods. I say, 'Look. I can't guarantee this won't turn your child into a psychotic—but the psychotic may be a writer.'


  • 3

    Robert Jordan

    My parents were not rich, not poor. My father was a police officer. When he was a captain, he resigned and went to work for the ports authority until he had to retire early for a disability.

    He was a man with an eidetic or photographic memory. A card sharp—loved to play bridge, poker, anything. You could take a deck of cards face down and riffle it once in front of him, and then he would call the cards in order before you dealt the card.

    He began to teach me poker when I was very young—when I had to sit on three encyclopaedias to see over the edge of the table. I was allowed to sit in on exactly three hands of poker when the game was in our house. No provisions made for taking it easy on the kid! My father staked me to the wagers. He would eat the losses, and the agreement was that I had to split any winnings with him. I did manage to win a couple of hands during that time! I certainly learned to play poker, I'll tell you. I miss him greatly.

    My mother was very beautiful. She looked like Ava Gardner's sister—the prettier one. She was a housewife. The only job she ever had was in World War II when everyone was employed—she did something then in defense.

    The added strain began when my mother had her first nervous breakdown, when I was eight. Those continued at regular intervals, necessitating her being hospitalized. I think that these two things—the fact that I was a precocious little monster in some ways, and that my mother had nervous breakdowns—in my case that was enough childhood stress to improve my chances as a writer, looking back at it rather coldly.


  • 4

    Robert Jordan

    I learned to read when I was four. My parents would go out to gatherings of friends. Two, three or sometimes four nights a week there would be—I hesitate to call it a party—music and dancing, that was it.

    My 16-year-old brother was sometimes stuck with babysitting the brat. He wanted to keep my hands out of his goldfish bowl and his terrarium, and keep my hands off his balsa wood planes. And he found that if he read to me and moved his finger along the line, I would sit beside him and stare at the page.

    Now he was not about to read children's books: he was reading me fairly adult novels. I don't know when I made the connection between the words he was saying and the symbols on the page. But one night my parents came home, he stuck the book back on the shelf, and I wanted more. So I pulled the book down and struggled through to the end. 'White Fang': that was the first book I ever read, if you want to call it reading. I did get a sense of the story.

    When my brother found out that I could do this, he started to supply me with books because that would keep me quiet. When he got guilty about letting me take books off my parents' shelves, he would bring me a book for a 10- or 12-year-old. My great uncles also supplied me with books, so I had a great clutch of pre-World War I boys' books.

    I did think about writing when I was very little. But writers didn't seem to make a living in the United States as writers. All sorts of fellows wrote books but they all had something else they did for the money. That's the way it seemed. And those who did, lived in Cuba or the South of France or Italy. I might have been precocious but I wasn't so sure about moving to Italy. . .


  • 5

    Robert Jordan

    School was very strange. The teachers finally discovered what was wrong when I was in the third grade, and tried to move me ahead three levels into the sixth grade. My parents said no.

    By and large I found school boring. Most of the time I could do a solid B, B+, perhaps an A, without studying. And since I was an athlete, that was considered sterling! Shot and discus, track and field, American football, basketball, baseball—I was good at everything.

    As for writing, I thought again about doing that, at 10 and 16 and 20. I said, 'It would be a useless exercise. What am I supposed to write about? I haven't seen enough of life, so anything I write is going to be empty.'

    I went to university and discovered that trying to carry a very heavy load in academic subjects and play football, I needed to know how to study. And that was something I had never learned how to do, so I floundered quite badly. At the end of a year at university I went into the army and went to Vietnam.

    I've always been a military history buff. But when I was in Vietnam I wasn't thinking history or strategy: I was thinking staying alive, and occasionally taking an R&R to Australia where I'd go to the beach and drink a lot of beer and try to meet a schoolteacher on vacation.

    I sort of knew in a way what to expect because military service has always been a family tradition. All my brothers, my father and my uncles, my grandfather and my great uncles went into the military—'some enlisted, most as officers, some made careers, some did not. But you did your basic service and if there was any shooting going on, you went where the guns were.


  • 6

    Robert Jordan

    Essentially I stayed in Vietnam until it was time to get out of the army. Then I went back to school and got my degrees: a Bachelor of Science in maths and one in physics.

    I had everything lined up to go to graduate school for a doctorate in quantum optics: I was very interested in theoretical physics. But I was tired of school, and I wanted to get on with my life. The government at this point was recruiting engineers, physicists and others, who they then sent to a school to study nuclear engineering. So I became an engineer, and for a long time I designed procedures to test and overhaul reactors on United States naval vessels.

    I had always said, 'One day I will write.' Then when I was 30 I was walking back from a dry dock to my office, and I had a fall and tore up my knee very severely. There were complications in the surgery, I nearly died, I spent a month in the hospital, and I spent three and a half months recuperating before I could walk well enough to go back to the office. During that time I reached burnout in reading. I remember picking up a book by an author I knew I liked, reading a few paragraphs and tossing it across the room and saying, 'Oh God, I could do better than that.' Then I thought, 'All right son, it's time to put up or shut up.'

    And so I wrote my first novel. It has never been published although it's been bought by two publishers, and a lot of good came out of it, including meeting my wife.


  • 7

    Robert Jordan

    I finished the novel within three and a half months, writing longhand on legal yellow pads. When I went back to work I typed it up in the evenings and made the changes, and sent it off to a publisher. The best I was hoping for was a letter saying, 'Not quite good enough but if you work at it you can get there.' I was very surprised to get an enthusiastic letter back offering to buy the novel. Then I tried to negotiate some minor points of the contract—I didn't have an agent—and I was equally shocked to get a letter back withdrawing the offer. (The publisher believed that a beginning writer should not quibble.)

    It didn't matter, because I decided I would ignore the second letter. The first letter said I could write. There were things happening at work that I found very irritating. So I cleared my desk and I completed every project in the pipeline, and I laid down my resignation. 'You can't go!' I said, 'Read the resignation. I'm going.' I was told, 'If you do this, you'll never work for the United States government again.' I said, 'Could I have that in writing?'

    My wife once said to me—when I'd been writing for ten or fifteen years—that I could always go back to being a nuclear engineer. And I said to her, 'Harriet, would you let someone who quit his job to go write fantasy anywhere near your nuclear reactor? I wouldn't!'

    I leaped right into writing, and I know a lot of writers who have done that. Other people need to develop the facility.

    I know as many different ways of writing as I know writers. To develop your own way of writing, read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Especially read what you want to write, and write what you like to read. . . because if you don't like to read it, you won't be able to write it.


  • 8

    I knew from the beginning how the story of 'The Wheel of Time' started, and I knew the last scene of the last book, I knew major scenes along the way, and I knew how I wanted my major characters to end up. But I underestimated the time it would take me to write the story, or overestimated how densely I could write. In the beginning I really thought I could do it in four or five books. By the end of the third I knew there wasn't a chance of finishing the story in six books, which led to confusion among fans. 'Oh you promised it would be finished in six!' They would like to have completion, and so would I.

    On the computer are about two megabytes of notes on individual Aes Sedai, another two megabytes or so notes about Aes Sedai organization, the structure, the laws, the customs, their sexual relations. But the story itself is all up here in my head.

    A lot of people are as fascinated with the individual characters as they are with the story. They talk to me about the characters as if they are people they know. I've tried to make them seem like real people—they're not perfect, they lie to one another sometimes, they try to put the best face on things even with friends. I've tried to make the world seem a place solid enough for people to visualize, not just a backdrop for the characters.


  • 9

    Robert Jordan

    As soon as I realized I was going to be writing a lot from inside a woman's head, I wanted to write women that women thought were women. I thought getting myself into a woman's skin would be the hard thing.

    Certainly I talk to my wife: she's my editor as well as my wife, so she's intimate with the books. Sometimes I'll ask her, 'Do you think this character would behave in this fashion?' I also read books written by women for women, I read magazines, and I eavesdrop on women sometimes. It's a low trick but it's the only way to find out how women talk when men aren't around.

    One of the best compliments I got was very early, when I was touring for the 'Dragon Reborn'. Some women said that until they saw me they believed Robert Jordan was the pen name of a woman. I thought, 'All right, I did it!'

    I've tried to write in layers. In addition I've tried to write each book so that every time you read it, you're standing in a different place, you're reading a slightly different book. And when you read the third book it shifts your position again. Things you thought were innocuous are important, and things you thought meant one thing, meant another.

    Even if you do it unconsciously, you have to refer to religion if you're writing fantasy. You're stepping into the realm of the supernatural and so you're stepping into the realm of religion.

    A few years ago I found myself thrown into the company of theoretical physicists on panels. I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to talk with these men because my knowledge of this field is 25 years out of date.' But I found that I could hold my own not by talking physics but by talking theology.


  • 10

    One of my themes is (and it's one reason I wrote the books as fantasies) there is good, there is evil, there is right, there is wrong—lit does exist. If you do that in a mainstream novel you are accused of being judgmental unless you've chosen the right political viewpoint.

    Maybe it's not always easy to tell which is the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. 'Good and evil—but relative to what?' This deconstructionism irritates the devil out of me. Situational ethics began as a way of making fine moral choices, but it's become this monster in so many people's minds: it now means there is no right, there is no wrong. 'Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.' That really doesn't work unless you intend to carry a gun all the time.

    What I believe goes into my stories. I'm not trying to preach. I believe these things, but I'm trying to tell stories. All my characters of course believe things I don't believe.


  • 11

    Robert Jordan

    To write, you have to have discipline. The discipline can vary. It depends on what other job you have. If you say, 'I'm going to write one hour a day seven days a week,' that's enough if you have another job. It's a commitment.

    Maybe you'll say, 'I'm going to write one page that every day that I'm satisfied with. If I knock it out in ten minutes, I'll quit. If I have to sit there half a night, I'll stay with it.' If you do that, at the end of a year you've got 365 pages of manuscript and that is not a fat novel, but it's a novel.

    For me, I write seven days a week, 8-10 hours a day, sometimes more. This is how I make my living. I don't have to go off to an office or a factory.

    If my wife wants us to go somewhere for a day, that's fine. But there've been times when she's actually brought me down to the front porch where I've found a fishing guide waiting. She'll say, 'The man has already been paid to take you fishing. Go get in his truck. Go!'


  • 12

    Robert Jordan

    I just see my life continuing until it ends. I intend to live! Most people exist. They simply do the job, go home, go to sleep, get up, go to work, go home, go to sleep. And it's understandable if you have a factory job—you can get very tired, you don't want to live. I'm lucky.

    I know my life is going to end.

    I was 19 when I realized I was going to die for sure. On my first tour in Vietnam, the helicopter I was in blew up and threw me into the jungle. I got up and ran back through the lines of an NVA ambush—I didn1t know it was there—I just knew the other chopper was in that direction.

    This knowledge changes your view of the world. I think it gives you a certain maturity. Perhaps maturity is the knowledge that everything is going to change, that neither you nor anything you see is going to go on forever.