Robert Jordan Interview - SFRevu

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Author: Ernest Lilley


Interview done by: Ernest Lilley

Ern: You have another couple weeks left on your tour, does this make up for the isolation of writing?

Robert: Not quite a couple, only nine days, and it more than makes up for it. It's fun.

I've had a couple of crowds of over 600, and several from 500 to 300, so believe me, I get a lot of company on the road.

Ern: Do you get starved for company when you write? I know you work for eight hours a day.

Robert: At least eight, sometimes nine or ten. No, I don't get starved for it. My wife says I'm a badger. She has to winkle me out of my den to get me to go to social functions.

Ern: Crossroads of Twilight is book ten in the Wheel of Time series. The idea of trying to jump in at this date or to read all ten daunts me.

Robert: Well, don't let it. You can give it a try and see how you like it, but you must start with book one, The Eye of the World. You would be absolutely lost trying to start with the most recent book, but The Eye of the World has a completeness to it so that unlike the other books it really can stand alone. So, even if you decide not to read on, it makes sense on its own.

Ern: For a few books you've been saying there were only three more books left... how many are there now?

Robert: At least two. I keep saying I was certain there were only two more books, and I'm certainly going to try to do it in two, but very few of the fans seem to believe I'll be able to do it in two, and I'm not certain myself.

Ern: Is there any chance that you'll finish up this storyline and then do some other works in this universe?

Robert: No, not really. There are three short novels that I'm going to do. They're prequels in a way, and they cover specific incidents that I think are interesting, not considering the major characters really.

One of them will be an expansion of the novella, "New Spring", which appeared in the collection called Legends. I wrote that at 35,000 words after a great deal of compressing, and I had to drop several storylines to get it down to that length. So, I'd like to do it the way I'd done it originally, at 70,000 words perhaps. There are two others of that sort that would be shortish, but no, I won't write any more in this universe when I reach the end... unless I come up with something stunning, otherwise I'd just be running over the same ground again, and I don't want to do that. I want to do something different.

Ern: You've said a number of times that you had envisioned the final scene in The Wheel of Time saga even before you started.

Robert: The scene was part of what made me realize the book. I had thought of how to open it, and then how to end the story. So from there it was a matter of figuring out how the people in the first scene become the people in the last scene, because they are quite different.

Ern: It seems like a tremendous job to keep herding the characters towards that scene. Some people's characters have a mind of their own.

Robert: My characters do what I want. When it comes to my writing I'm an old testament god with my fist in the middle of my characters' lives. They do what I want them to do. The difficulty has been that the story turned out to be larger than I thought it was, quite simply. I thought I could put x amount of the story in the first book and I couldn't. Then when I started the Eye of the Hunt I thought I'd be able to put more of the story in it...and I couldn't. It simply was a matter of size. These are fairly large books, seven hundred pages in hardback. It would simply make the books too large for anyone to carry without a shoulder strap.

Ern: So it's not that the plot weaves in other directions than you expected, but that it's richer than you realized.

Robert: Yes, exactly.

Ern: Did you come from a reading family?

Robert: Oh yes, bookshelves all over the house.

Ern: What did your parents do?

Robert: Well, my mother was a housewife, she worked in defense during WWII, but other than that she was a housewife. My father had been a police officer after WWII, and then he went to work for the State Ports Authority in South Carolina. Where he worked up till his retirement, he had to retire early for health reasons.

Ern: When did you start in as a full time writer?

Robert: That was about twenty-five years ago. I was working as an engineer for the government and I was injured. I had to have my knee rebuilt, and there were complications from the surgery. A blood clot broke up in my lungs and kept me in the hospital for a month. Some sort of infection that gave me a fever. They tell me I almost died, and I decided that life was too short. I had always thought I'd write one day, but I decided that it was time to put up or shut up.

Ern: When did you first start thinking you'd write?

Robert: When I was five. I learned to read very early. At five I was reading Jules Verne and Mark Twain. I had read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and From the Earth to the Moon, those were the last three books I had read and I propped them up on a table an looked at them and I remember thinking that someday I would make stories like this.

Ern: Do you remember what the first book that you read was?

Robert: Yes, It was White Fang, but only the second half of it. You see, my older brother, who is twelve years older than I am, was sometimes stuck babysitting me, and what he did to keep me from sticking my hands in his goldfish bowl, and to keep from flying his balsa wood planes off the porch, was to read to me. He would read whatever he had to read for school though, and I somehow picked up reading out of this, and the first time it really manifested itself to me, he had been reading White Fang until our parents came home and he put it back on the shelf...and I wanted to know what happened. So I took the book back down and I worked my way through it. I did not get every word, but I got enough to understand the story. I remember that very clearly. I was very proud of myself for doing that. By the next year I had no trouble at all with Twain or Verne. I had a little difficulty with H.G. Wells.

Ern: It sounds like you were a pretty eclectic reader.

Robert: At that point I was reading anything I could get my hands on. You see I was reading what I found on my parents bookshelves. Later, when I got a library card, I was disgusted to find I was supposed to go to something called the "children's section".

The only books I found there that I enjoyed were the "Freddy the Pig" books, and some Juvenile Heinlein. Those books fascinated me and I loved them. For the rest, there was nothing in the children's section that I wanted to pay attention to, and I wanted to get books like I'd been reading at home. So, I'd go into the adult's section of the library and snag books off the adult shelves. I'd take them to a reading room and I'd put the books that I wanted to keep on a shelf where they didn't seem to be bothered, and I'd leave the ones that I didn't find interesting on the table where they would get put back.

Thus I went through life never reading any children's books, until I was married. The first time my wife got sick she wanted me to read her children's I did.

Ern: You're married to an editor...was she an editor when you met her?

Robert: Oh yes. She was the founding editorial director of Tom Doherty associates, which publishes TOR books. Before that she had been promoted to Vice President, and celebrated that by resigning to set up her own imprint which was distributed by Grosset and Dunlap. My first novel to be published was published by her imprint.

When that book was done I began to miss we began dating.

Then I asked her to marry me...but I very got Neanderthal and got cold feet. She was my publisher and my editor and how could I marry her? So I hurriedly sold some things elsewhere and then it was all right. She's still my editor. She's cut back now, and I'm the only author she edits. We used to spend a week a month in New York so she could do editorial work, and she decided she didn't want to do that anymore but she still edited people. Then a couple of years ago she cut that because of the tours for my books, and I want her to come with me, 'cause I'd go stone crazy spending a month on the road alone in hotels every night.

Ern: Very nice hotels

Robert: Yes. they have to be able to do express laundry and have 24 hour room service because I often don't get to eat until I get back to the hotel at one in the morning and I wanted to be able to get my favorite comfort food, Spaghetti Bolognese, which is really just spaghetti with a very simple tomato meat sauce.

Anyway, she gave up her last writers, she was editing Father Andrew Greely and Mike and Cathy Greer, and I'd started to sell books in translation and my European publishers started asking me to come to do tours in Sweden and Norway and Holland and Russia and Great Britain. So she decided it wouldn't be fair to the authors to go incommunicado on them for a month at a time.

Ern: Does touring cut into your writing time?

Robert: No, not really. It's so quick after the books. The last five books it's been two months between me handing in the manuscripts and me being on tour.

I just have time to catch my breath after stopping writing and to go outside blinking a little because I'm unsed to being in the daylight. Last year I figured out that I took five days off all year. The rest of the time I wrote. Two of those were days to go fishing, and there was a wedding, and I can't remember what the fifth one was...

Ern: You didn't start out writing Fantasy, you started out writing Historical Fiction under yet another name...

Robert: Yes, Regan O'Neill is my name for Historical Fiction. The first thing I ever wrote was Fantasy, at least I thought it was. It will never be published now because I'm a better writer now. I wrote this thing and I sent it to DAW books because I heard that DAW published first novels. So I sent it to DAW and got back a letter from Donald Wolheim that was exceedingly laudatory, and obviously he had written it at home and typed it himself because he had scratched out words adn made changes in pen and his signature was cramped...and he made me an offer.

And I asked for some changes in the contract. Nothing very big. I asked for some changes in subsidiary rights that I never expected to be exercised because I wanted to establish that I wasn't going to accept ust anything that was offered. But I didn't know enough about the industry to know if I was being offered a minuscule advance or a fairly good advance.

Ern: You wanted to establish a dialog.

Robert: Yes. And I found out that he didn't like beginning writers to ask for changes. He thought that beginning writers should accept what was offered. So the result of my asking fo rthe changes was that I got a letter back saying, "Dear Sir, in view of your contract demands we are withdrawing our offer. Sincerely, Donald A. Wolheim."

I looked at the two letters and I didn't know why I'd gotten the second, as I hadn't demanded anything. It was actually a very diffident letter, and I had ended by saying, "If any of these requests seem out of line, please let me know." Thus throwing away everything, but I knew that I had no real knowledge of publishing.

So, I decided to ignore the second letter because the first letter said; you can write.

That novel that I thought of as a Fantasy was later bought by Jim Baen while he was at Ace as a Science Fiction novel. You may know that Jim doesn't think very highly of fantasy, so he bought it as SF while DAW had bought it as Fantasy. Then Susan Allison came in to replace him when he went to TOR and she didn't like it, so I got the rights back and it's sat on the shelf all this time.

Ern: And what was this novel that we will never see?

Robert: It's title was Warriors of the Altaii, and you will never see it, or know anything about it. I have not destroyed the manuscript, because it has powerful juju...but in my will I have provisions to have that manuscript burned. But until then I'm afraid to get rid of the juju that resides in it.

In a way that novel led to me meeting my wife, and it led to me getting my first novel published. Because she knew about that manuscript, when Tom Doherty got the rights to do the Conan novels, he needed the first one very fast so that it would come out the same time the movie came out. And he knew that I had once written a 98,000 word novel in 13 days.

So he thought I could write something fast, and he was right, and I liked it. It was fun writing something completely over the top, full of purple prose, and in a weak moment I agreed to do five more and the novelization of the second Conan movie.

I've decided that those things were very good discipline for me. I had to work with a character and a world that had already been created and yet find a way to say something new about the character and the world. That was a very good exercise.

Ern: Speaking of world building, the world, and the magic of The Wheel of Time universe is quite involved, quite complex...yet you keep a high degree of consistency. How to you keep things straight?

Robert: Every time I think of something new I jot it down in my notes. And I've built a sort of logic tree...if this is so and that is so, then this other thing cannot be so. Sometimes you reach a point where if you follow one line a thing cannot be so, but if you follow another it must be so.

Ern: So, you write fantasy "with the net up".

Robert: I look at the magic as though it were technology in a though it were science. The One Power and Channeling follow's not simply free wheeling and anything goes, it follows specific rules. Those rules are pretty well worked out now.

Ern: I'm principally an SF reader, though I enjoy some Fantasy. I think that one of the things I like about SF is that it tackles some big questions...but you write Fantasy for the same reason.

Robert: Yes, it seems to me that the SF you like, as do I, so often the "ta-pocketa-pocketa" if you remember the old Walter Mitty movie, the ta-pocketa-poketa takes over and the characters are just there to see that it happens at the right time. The best SF goes much beyond that and there certainly a lot of flaws in a lot of Fantasy as well, but perhaps that's the reason I decided to go with Fantasy instead of SF.

Also, SF has absorbed something from mainstream literature, and that is something I think of as a moral ambivalence, which is the erroneous application of situational ethics. There really isn't anything that's right or wrong, there is no good or evil, it all depends on the circumstances.

Ern: Post-Modern ethics for a Post-Human culture.

Robert: And I look at this and say, no, no. There is right and there is wrong and there is good and there is evil, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. But it's worth to try to tell the don't just flip a coin.

Ern: Do you think that people are getting tired of this moral relativism?

Robert: I think so. Not to one value system. There are lots of value systems in this country. But I think that a lot of people want to believe in something, and they want a set of rules in life, or guidelines for life and behavior for what's right to do, or what's wrong to do and they may argue among themselves about whether this or that is right or wrong, but they want to believe in those things.

Ern: Tolerance is good, but being not caring is a bad thing.

Robert: Yes, there is a difference between being tolerant and being a sponge.

Ern: So, Fantasy allows you to deal with moral issues, while SF focuses you on the technology though it grapples with them somewhat, it is a setting based genre rather than a character based one.

Robert: And the technology is very often much more important than the issues, it seems to me.

I say this as someone who likes Neil Stephenson. I like Greg Bear. I reread Heinlein periodically...I love Science Fiction.

Ern: Do you reread the Heinlein Juveniles?

Robert: Absolutely. I hate what they did with Starship Troopers. I kept waiting for Heinlein to come out of his grave and beat them all over the head. They made it very blatant that we were going to have a Nazi future there...and it was clear that the people who made it had no understanding of Robert Heinlein, or what made him tick, or what he was writing about.

Ern: Aside from mucking up the concept, and with all the CGI they used, I really hated that they omitted the central technology in the film, the powered suit.

Robert: Ah, yes. I didn't quite understand why they left that out. I looked at the whole movie and decided I didn't want to buy the DVD on this one.

Ern: You served in Vietnam, and I was wondering how you felt about it?

Robert: I'd say, ambivalent. I wouldn't say, I was glad that I went...but it was something I could not have done otherwise without being someone other than I was.

Ern: Where were you?

Robert: I'd say, ambivalent. I wouldn't say, glad that I went...but it was something I couldn not have done otherwise without being someone other than I was.

Ern: Where were you stationed and what did you do?

Robert: I was a gunner in Hueys. I was in Saigon in the beginning, and then out of Ben Wa, and we flew everywhere. Sun Sea, The Rubber Plantation, down to Cu Chi in the delta, over to Nui Ba Dinh, Black Virgin Mountain, and we were flying into Cambodia long before the "Parrots Beak". (misspellings are mine, feel free to correct me - Ern)

Ern: Here we are on the eve of another war, do you have any feelings about this one?

Robert: I wish we didn't have to do it, but I think it's the best chance we have for making some sort of turnaround in the Arab world. That means forcing a settlement to the Palestinian question. Iraq, before Saddam took over was the most secular and educated nation, and it is the one that has the best chance, despite the difficulties, of moving into something we would recognize as democracy.

If that could be done, it might mitigate, to a great extent, a lot of the street hatred of the west. It really is hatred. We let women think, we let them drive cars, we let them get jobs...we tolerate Jews...we do all of these things that are nasty...and we are nasty ourselves. There's a great deal of hatred that stems from something that we in the US haven't seen since the Civil War, and possibly not even then. It's something that the Western World really hasn't seen in the last three of four hundred years.

It's a hate of the other, because they are the other...and not like me, therefore we will kill them.

Ern: Where does the hate come from?

Robert: A lot of it comes from awareness. Satellite television has made a lot of places in the world aware of Europe and the US, that thirty or forty years ago were barely aware of us.

Ern: and we undermine their authority.

Robert: Yes, by merely being here we threaten them. An expert was asked after 9/11 what we could do to wipe out these people's hatred of us...and he paused a moment and then answered, "We could move off the planet."

It's something we need to be concerned about. You may say, why do we care if a third world nation has a few A-Bombs, but you know, the Soviet Union was a third world nation. Once the wall came down, we realized we were looking at a Third World Nation...that had held the world in the Cold War for all that time simply because they had nuclear weapons.

I don't even want to think about a world in which North Korea and Saddam Hussein have nuclear weapons. Both of those governments have people which would be quite willing to use these things.

Ern: And yet, we often are ugly Americans. Our biggest ambassador to the world is Baywatch.

Robert: Well, yes, but our TV has been moved to the wee small hours. Movies are still popular, but the people aren't watching it...unlike a government edict...they just seem to want to watch something else.

Ern: Possibly cheap video technology has allowed them to make their own content.

Robert: Possibly.

Ern: Is there anything else we should talk about?

Robert: Well, no...except to once again emphasize that you cannot start with Crossroads of Twilight. You must begin with Eye of the World (laughs).

Ern: and the Eye of the World can stand on its own.

Robert: Yes, and you don't have to go on, but it is the beginning and you learn things. I don't try to repeat the character's lessons. I simply assume in the later books that you have read what has gone before. You will know.

Ern: I understand that there is another story universe you have in mind after you finish the Wheel of Time.

Robert: Yes, something very different from the Wheel of Time. A different universe and different culture and no connection to this world or universe, but it is a fantasy. I have the great story arc in mind, and I've been noodling it around in the back of my head for the last seven or eight years.

Ern: But you're not giving anything away.

Robert: No, but let me give you an example of why. When I first thought I might have what would become the Wheel of Time ready, the character of Rand, who is about 19 years old, and his father Tam, were one character. A man who had run away from home as a boy of thirteen or fourteen, and in that sort of world that you can get if you've grown up on a farm. He began to work with horses among soldiers and then he became a soldier, and having spent twenty years of his life as a soldier, he's tired, and decides he wants to go home.

So a man in his middle thirties returns home to his village, and discovers that the place he returns to is not the place he left, and that he is not the young man who ran away, and on top of that the world and phrophecy were hard on his heels. It would have been a very different story than the one I wound up writing. I decided that I wanted to split them because I wanted the major characters to be Candides. I wanted them to look at fresh eyes...I wanted everything to be new.

Ern: Well, I think we've kept you long enough that it's time for you to go hoe your own garden (Ernest is showing off here by quoting the last line in Candide). Thank you.

Robert: (laughs politely) Yes. You're very welcome.