In London, on 11th November 1993, I interviewed Robert Jordan, bestselling author of fantasy series The Wheel of Time. Due to circumstances beyond my control – just one of those perils freelancers often encounter at the hands of contrary commissioning decisions – the publication I believed would run the interview didn't take it. As I was deep into writing a book at the time, along with other commitments, and the interview hadn't even been transcribed at that point, I put the tapes aside with the intention of finding another market at a later date. What with one thing and another I never got round to that. For years, decades in fact, those tapes sat in storage, half forgotten.
I've finally written up the interview, which has never been published anywhere before, and with apologies to Robert Jordan's memory for the delay, here it is:
AN ANTIDOTE TO SPUN SUGAR FROTH
An Interview with Robert Jordan
“I've often said that if you want your child to be a writer make sure that he or she has a miserable childhood,” Robert Jordan says. “Put the child under as much stress as possible. I don't mean child abuse and beatings or whatever, but make sure this child is under as much stress as possible from the day of birth until the day he or she finally kills someone to get out.”
He's kidding, of course. His childhood wasn't miserable, but it would be fair to say it was out of the ordinary, and stressful in its way. Born James Oliver Rigney in Charleston, South Carolina, the author whose epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time would sell over 90 million copies worldwide was by his own account a precocious child. “I taught myself to read when I was three or four,” he recalls. “I was into Mark Twain and Jules Verne and so on, and I had my own public library card by the time I was six. That gave me access to the children's section, and when I looked around at what they expected six and seven year olds to read I thought it had to be some kind of a joke. If you've just read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea you're not going to settle down to The Velveteen Rabbit for God's sake.”
He found respite in the reference section, the only other area of the library children were allowed to enter. “In there I managed over the next few years to read my way through the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia Americana and a number of other reference works. But that was only because I was kept away from where I really wanted to go, which was to dive into the adult fiction area. Eventually I figured out a way to sneak in there, and I would grab two, three, four books at random and hustle back to a small room near the children's section where I could sit and read. And if I discovered a really good author I liked I'd try to get my hands on everything they'd written. I kept this subterfuge up for years.”
The stressful aspect came from something recognisable to anyone, including many writers, who in their younger years are of above average intelligence and maybe a little eccentric: being considered an oddball. “Looking back I suppose I was a very odd combination of the sort of childishness you expect and rather disturbing precociousness. I can remember saying things and making observations, very adult observations, about situations around me or things I'd seen in the paper as young as five or six. My parents quickly became used to it, but other adults would either say, 'Oh, how cute he is' or else they would look at me very oddly, and sometimes someone would ask who had told me that. A couple of friends of my mother thought I was pretending to read the newspaper.” Other kids picked up on it too. “It gave me I think a certain sense of isolation, of separateness. Because I was separated by this from those around me. I was separated from everyone.”
When he was ploughing through that library, or reading any books he could get his hands on at home, Jordan came to a realisation. “At eight or nine you're starting to think what you're going to do when you start writing. To find the point where you said 'I'm going to write one day', that I don't know. I simply knew that I was thinking about the fact that one day I would write. But even then I was fairly sensible; I knew that very few writers made a living from writing. So I was going to have a profession, and I would one day write on the side when I had become successful at my profession. One ambition about a profession was that I intended to be a career army officer, until I discovered that I wasn't going to make it to West Point.”
But he did serve as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, returning with the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, the Bronze Star with "V" and oak leaf cluster, and two Vietnamese Gallantry Crosses with palm. Back home in 1970 he studied Physics at the Military College of South Carolina, known as The Citadel, graduating in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science Degree. After which he worked as a nuclear engineer for the US Navy.
He finally began writing in earnest in 1977. His authorised novels continuing the adventures of Robert E Howard's Conanwere well received. He also wrote a western (Cheyenne Raiders) under the pen name Jackson O'Reilly and historical fiction (the Fallon series) as Reagan O'Neal, among other pseudonymous works.
Did his background in the military, and in Physics and Mathematics, prove useful in any way when it came to writing fiction? “In many ways. Mathematics certainly teaches you about structure. Physics does to a certain extent, although a lot of modern physics is approaching Theology really. I was talking to some physicists recently, I mean true physicists with PhDs, not a Bachelor of Science like I have, and after a while I realised that I was talking to high priests discussing mysticism, and it really was mysticism. And it might even be the truth for all I know!” He laughs. “But Maths and Physics teach you about working things out, about how things are put together, and it does help in putting together the books. That and my reading over the years, which has been voracious to the extent that I read between four hundred and five hundred books a year, meant I began to be able to build a society or a language and have people believe that this society or this language could exist. People who know about these sort of things have told me 'Yes, this is a recognisably viable society in the way it's structured and yet it's different from what we're doing, but all the rules and customs and things fit together in a very real way.'”
And his military experiences? He reflects before answering, “I think the only thing the military really gave me was the knowledge of what it was like having someone trying to kill you, and to know what it is really like to kill someone. And to know what it's really like to be absolutely certain, one hundred percent convinced, that you're going to die in the next 30 seconds. I think that I can convey those things to some degree because I've experienced them.” To clarify, Jordan did not claim to have killed anyone during his time in Vietnam, although he could well have done so as a result of being a gunner. But he did see the bodies of friends and foes, up close.
Why choose fantasy as a vehicle? “Well, I have written books in other genres under various pen names, and I've ghosted books in other genres.” One of those ghosted books was apparently a bestseller in the thriller genre, credited to a noted author. That's all Jordan will say about it. Given that the real writers of ghosted works are usually restrained by confidentiality clauses in their contracts his reticence is understandable. He's content to let readers play a guessing game in this instance. 'But when it came to The Wheel of Time,” he says, “I always dreamed of writing what I liked to read, and I do like fantasy. You have to shape a book to two things: the story you want to tell and the things you want to talk about, and the story I wanted to tell in The Wheel of Time was particularly suited to fantasy.”
“If you've read the books,” he adds, “you'll know there's more than one storyline and more than one main character. That major, major storyline is along the lines of what is it really like to be tapped on the shoulder and be told that you are the saviour of Mankind. Oh yes, and that at the end of it they're going to nail you up on a cross. That sort of thing lent itself to fantasy, and some of the other thoughts that came to me lent themselves to fantasy. About cyclic natures that turn up again and again, for example, and the greatest exemplar of that is the Wheel of Time itself, with any point being both in the future and in the past, depending on which way you look. There's the concept that these people we see, these characters, are the source of our legends, we are the source of theirs, and that did lend itself well to fantasy.”
While keen to express certain ideas in his work he doesn't want his books to read like polemics. “I don't like putting themes and discussions up front. I don't like anybody to say, right off the bat having read my book, 'This book is about the struggle against evil and how far can you go before you become as bad as what you are fighting. But on the other hand how far dare you hold back if holding back means the victory of evil.' Because the point I'm trying to convey, although not overtly, is about the distortion of information and the fact that no one ever knows the entire truth, and that even if something happened yesterday and someone you consider to be a reliable reporter comes and tells you about it you have not heard an actuality. You've heard something that's been filtered through their perceptions. If you were there you know the truth with a hundred per cent confidence of what you actually saw. Anything else you can only have a ninety-nine point whatever, at best, level of confidence. So how much more degradation of information do you get if something happened a hundred years ago? Something that has been through the hands of three or four revisionist historians. Or that happened a thousand years ago or three thousand years ago and has taken on the trappings of myth. Those things are inherently there in the Wheel of Time books. The thing is I'm not trying to make anybody come to any particular conclusion about most of these questions. Even questions I feel strongly about. The idea is to get people to think about these topics and let them come to their own conclusions.”
How long were the ideas behind The Wheel of Time germinating? “It was about ten to twelve years between the first thoughts and actually putting words on paper. There was a great deal of change, in terms of both plot and characters, during that time.” Given the complexities of the plot and the range of characters, was it originally conceived as a trilogy or a series? “My conceit was such in the very beginning that I really thought I could do the bloody thing in one book. I really did, and I was killing myself figuring out how to fit it into one book. It seemed to be a great deal of work but of course I thought I could do that. But by the time I got to my publisher I'd gotten a little more realistic and thought it could be three or four books, or maybe five. By the time I was into the second book I was saying maybe it would be six. Now I'm working on six and I think I can finish it up in seven. I do know the final scene though. I could have written that final scene five years ago, and when I do come to it there will only be very minor changes.”
It's hard to talk about fantasy without bringing up JRR Tolkien and the long, enduring shadow he's cast over the field. “Oh yes, definitely,” Jordan agrees. “If you'll forgive me for mixing my metaphors, he's both the plinth in the middle of the plain that none of us can ignore and also the foundation on which we're all building.” Would it be fair to say that Tolkien's influence could be seen as both benign and somewhat restricting? “In a way, yes. He gave fantasy at one and the same time possibilities, literary possibilities, artistic possibilities, and recognition of the form, but in many ways he drew a boundary around the field. So that it took a great while even to begin to edge out from Tolkien. Fantasy was Tolkien, and to a large extent people were very carefully staying in his shadow, because that was what fantasy was. I'm not saying they were copying Tolkien, but that's where fantasy was, and it stayed under his influence, if you will. It took a long time for people to move away from that. He just dominated the field to that extent.”
When some people initially referenced Jordan in relation to Tolkien, positively and negatively, his feelings about it were mixed. “Yes, it happened quite often in the beginning, especially after the first book. Because in the first book, maybe in the first hundred pages or so, it's very pastoral and in some ways, without trying to copy the style, very much a homage to Tolkien. I was saying this peaceful place that we're in, this peaceful part of the world, this ground you walk, you are familiar with. Because Professor Tolkien took us there. Then I said okay, now the roller coaster ride begins; I'm going to take you where you've never been before. I did do that quite deliberately to try to invoke him to some extent. Perhaps with a good deal of success because a number of reviewers said things like that. They called it something like 'The definitive exploration of Professor Tolkien's territory, but this century',” he recites from memory. “'The American Tolkien', someone called me. There were lots of reviews comparing me to Tolkien. My publisher of course loves Tolkien, so he immediately started using these quotes in all the advertising. I tried to stamp on it but they would pop up again. I think I've managed to get rid of them finally. It's very flattering, it really is, to have that comparison. But I'm not Tolkien. I'm not trying to copy Tolkien or imitate him. I'm trying to be me. Please stop saying that I'm some sort of Tolkien clone or imitation because it's going to mislead people. What I do is not to be seen in any way as a pastiche, or a homage to the extent of copying his style or content. I have my own values, my own background. My life is different. I come from a different place than Professor Tolkien, I've lived a different life. I see the world through a different set of eyes. There's no way I could write a book that would have the same values and express the same viewpoints. I'm very thankful for his books. The Lord of the Rings certainly. The Rings trilogy is stunning. I will admit subversively that I have never enjoyed The Hobbit. The trilogy is so wonderfully, exceedingly adroit that you forget that it is at its heart a children's book. But Tolkien did not give that depth to The Hobbit.”
Without claiming comparisons, Jordan sees himself as firmly within the same ancient storytelling tradition as exemplified by Tolkien. “I come from a family of raconteurs,” he says. “I have always told stories. I have in fact said before that I feel this direct line from me to a storyteller squatting in a village square somewhere with a begging bowl in front of him. If he tells a good story the villagers will fill the bowl with soup and give him a piece of bread, and maybe a place to sleep tonight. But if he doesn't tell a good story he's going to have to move on and sleep under a bush, hungry. I feel a direct link between myself and that person.”
So Jordan's saying that he sees himself as a purely commercial writer, albeit rewarded with somewhat more than soup and bread? “I think you have to look at my kind of writing as a sort of meeting place between art and craftsmanship. If you go too far toward looking at writing as an art it seems to me that you enter a realm of emptiness. Writers who say, as I've heard many say recently, that plot and character and dialogue and story get in the way of the writing and should be dispensed with … well, I've read some of their writings and they have done that. And they're left with exactly what you'd expect them to be left with. There may be some beautiful words in there but they don't qualify as poetry. What they qualify as is spun sugar froth. It might be pretty to look at for a moment but it falls apart as soon as you touch it. If you go too far toward craftsmanship it's better than going the other way certainly, but going too far that way you produce in effect what amounts to purely writing for the pleasure of the public and you give the public whatever the public wants, whatever the fans want. If they want you to write the same book over and over again, that's what you do. If they want you to write books that have more sex or more violence or less sex or less violence than you would like to write, then that's what you give them. If they want you to be cute when you'd rather be grim or grim when you'd rather be cute, you give them that. You can call it whoring if you want to, but many people who do this are very good writers, but they have strayed purely into the realm of being a craftsman. And a pure craftsman is at the beck and call of whoever gives them a coin. It seems to me you have to find that balance point between the art and the craft, and weld them together if you can.”
The flow of story is vital for him. “But so is the flow of the words and each individual sentence. The way the storylines flow together is important, almost as if the storylines were physical swirlings of paint. The flow of the language is as if it were a symphony. I sometimes perceive it and feel it in these ways. But at the same time I'm telling a story. I may be trying to make these beautiful blends, these beautiful flowing movements and these beautiful sounds, but I'm also telling a story, and I'm telling a story about people. You have to remember that all the time or you've simply fallen off the path as far as I'm concerned.”
The concept of genres, the labelling of different literary forms, is something he would like not to exist. “I would love to see them disappear. But it's not going to happen. There are writers who abandon labels. They do this, generally, by making their publisher abandon the label. They say 'I am no longer writing fantasy,' and quite often what they're writing still is fantasy, and the book stores quite often still put it right where they've always put it, with the other fantasy novels. I would love to see the distinctions disappear but it isn't going to happen because human beings categorise things. We always have, we always will. Whether it's 'us and them' or 'this and that'.” He'd like to see the end of categories because readers are ignoring books they might enjoy? “Oh, they are. Definitely. But it's one of the things that perhaps doesn't trouble me as much as it should because I do read so many things. Most people don't. I know people who tell me 'I never read genre fiction' and then I look at the books they've read that are mainstream fiction except that I find something that I consider a western or an historical novel or a war novel. But they don't read genre fiction. They at least have a wider range than people I run into who really do stick to one genre, which is what most people do. They read science fiction and fantasy, or maybe they read westerns or they read mysteries or they read war stories or they read historical and they don't touch anything outside.”
Mainstream itself is just another genre, isn't it? “Yes, that's what I'm saying. You can within what's called mainstream find every sort of book. Including books that except for the single fact that someone decided somewhere that this is not a western, this is not a mystery, this is not a horror story, whatever. There's also the issue of authors who want to move into another genre. There's a fear quite often on the part of publishers that the fans will not accept that, so they will try to keep a writer writing that particular thing. Of course a lot of the fans do prefer that particular thing and some of them will complain. They resist. You know, 'You wrote this and it's different.' And if the writer says 'Yes, I meant it to be different, but do you like it?' And the fans say 'It's different!' Readers, fans, can be rigid. Some writers give up under that sort of pressure of course and go back in their box.'
How does this relate to the old writing advice that says write what you know about? Can that apply even to fantasy? “I've always said forget about writing what you know. Write what you like to read. As far as writing what you know is concerned, you can research and learn about anything to a degree necessary to write about it convincingly. You don't have to have been there or lived there to write about it. As far as writing what you like to read is concerned, I'm thinking along those lines at the moment. I'm working in my head on what I'll do after The Wheel of Time. It's certainly past time to be working on what comes next.”
It was not to be. In March 2006 Jordan announced that he had been diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis, a condition in which so called faulty proteins accumulate in the heart,
impairing its ability to pump efficiently and eventually leading to failure. The prognosis was that with appropriate treatment his life expectancy was four years. In the event, and after what by all accounts was a spirited fight, Jordan succumbed eighteen months later, on 16th September 2007. He was fifty-eight years old.
The Wheel of Time series concluded at fourteen volumes, the last three written by prolific fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, who had been chosen by Jordan as his successor, based on notes left behind. There was also a prequel novel and a companion.
During our interview Robert Jordan expressed the hope that the series might one day be faithfully adapted for the screen. It was fourteen years after his death before that came about, with the TV series based on his books beginning its run on Amazon Prime in November 2021.
Digging in the dusty archives has turned up some items associated with the graphic novel version of David Gemmell's Wolf in Shadow that I adapted.
Here's the first page of the publisher's press release announcing the Wolf in Shadow graphic novel, Bloodstone, and the paperback edition of The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, all of which were issued on the same day in 1994:
The front and back of a promotional fold-out produced for the book trade:
We undertook quite a few signings for the Legend and Wolf in Shadow graphic novels, and here are flyers advertising two such events.
Though considering that I was Forbidden Planet's first manager and had worked there for about five years before becoming a full-time writer you might have thought they'd spell my name correctly …
I can't believe I've clocked up fifty months of these photos.
I've always had a bit of a thing about masks, though admittedly Covid knocked a lot of the romance out of them. When visiting another country we occasionally bring a mask back as a souvenir, and friends sometimes gift us one from their travels. Here are some of them, from Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Milan, Nepal, Portugal, Spain and Venice.
And a happy New Year to all. We can only hope it'll be an improvement on what we've been dealt in the years leading up to this. In that spirit, this seems appropriate:
It's also relevant to the next item. Read on.
Back in 2016 my wife Anne and myself were among the guests of honour at that year's Sci-Fi Weekender event, held at Camber Sands, North Wales.
During that weekend I was interviewed on stage by genre journalist Robin Pierce. I was vaguely aware that the interview was being filmed, but only very recently discovered that segments had been posted on YouTube. These are very short clips, each covering just one question and answer.
In this clip Robin asked about the very first science fiction film I remember seeing. (The poster in the first item above is a broad hint.)
In this one he wonders if I have any advice for aspiring writers.
The two clips amount to just a few minutes, so you wouldn't be investing a huge amount of time if interested.
FORBIDDEN PLANET'S FLYER CIRCUS
We're in the long and cumbersome process of clearing a storage unit we rent and going through a lot of long unopened boxes. One find has been a mass of flyers for signings at Forbidden Planet's original shop in London's Denmark Street during my time as manager there. I tend to be an in the present, looking forward to whatever time I might have left sort of person, not given to overly obsessing about the past (I hope). But I do think this sort of ephemera's important and should be preserved somewhere. The history of the fantastical genres and the communities surrounding them is often to be found in the peripheral items that tend to be discarded. For some time I've been working on and off on compiling an archive of this material which I hope to eventually add to this website. That won't happen for a while, so until then here's a sampling of the unearthed flyers.
I'm particularly pleased to have helped organise the very first signing Douglas Adams undertook, on publication of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy novelisation, and again when The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was released. And I'm proud of these flyers that advertised those events.
Here's a fairly random selection of some others:
There are a lot more, but I think that's enough for now.
As a long-time reader and latterly a contributor to the much-missed Starlog magazine, I was interested to hear about this recently published companion:
The publisher's blurb best describes the book's remit:
“Beginning in 1976, Starlog magazine chronicled the science fiction field, taking readers behind the scenes of the films, TV programs, books, games, art, and more. Long before the Internet became the place to learn news about upcoming films and television programs, science fiction fans found this news in the pages of Starlog. And they argued about all of it in the letters pages, long before Facebook or online chat rooms became popular.
“The Starlog Compendium s an issue-by-issue synopsis of the first 200 issues of Starlog magazine. With information on the magazine’s evolution along with a listing of every article in every issue, this compendium is the companion for your Starlog collection - or your guide to accumulating your collection.”
I haven't seen a copy at this time but hope to soon. The Amazon UK listing (paperback and Kindle versions) is here.
I thought I'd share a piece of art my wife Anne completed on 9th December. It's in acrylics and entitled 'Assyrian Guardian'.
Regular visitors here will know that I usually post photos relevant to, ie taken in, the month they're posted. Things are so dreary and cold here in the UK at the moment that I thought I'd depart from that and show something more summery and cheering. This is part of the frontage of the house in Spain where my sister-in-law, Janet Calderwood, lived until recently.
All previous news updates, going back to 2008, can now be found in our News Archive.
And the menu on the top left of this page, or these links, will take you to all previous Photographs of the Month, as well as my Biography and Bibliography (Orcs series, Quicksilver trilogy, Nightshade Chronicles trilogy, Other Titles).
There are also sections on Conventions, Gothique & Stardock and a history of The David Gemmell Awards For Fantasy.
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