From STARLOG January 1991; pg 16-18, 58; BY: William B. Thompson - Mr. Thompson "is a Charleston, South Carolina-based journalist. He profiled Alan Dean Foster in STARLOG #81."


Jordan outside his house

When Robert Jordan's parents couldn't find a babysitter, they would utilize the services of his redoubtable older brother, who read to his four-year-old sibling from a rich varied repertoire of Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H.G. Welles and the like.

The common thread was a zestful, somemtimes wry imagination. And Jordan was an exceedingly quick study..

"It was galvanizing, better than a movie. I could visualize all of it in my head. By the time I was five, I had taught myself how to read."

A sort of slenderized Burl Ives, with the same intelligent, probing eyes, ebullient manner, and faintly mischievous grin, Jordan, now in his 40s, is exploring the realm of fantasy after successful sojourns along a number of literary paths.

Judging by the review and the sales-his pen seems as formidable as a highwayman's blade, or a sorcerer's talisman.

Jordan, who also writes under the pseudonyms "Reagan O'Neal" and "Jackson O'Reilly," recently completed the second in a planned six-book fantasy series for Tor Books collectively entitled "The Wheel of Time." The first installment, The Eye of the World, was four years in the writing. It was released in February 1990 to broad acclaim, ascending the bestseller list. Volume two, The Great Hunt, was published this fall, with the third book tentatively scheduled for December 1991.

"Actually, I prefer not to use the term "series" because it sounds so open-ended, like the writer will continue to produce books in the same creative surroundings indefinitely," says Jordan, a life-long resident of Charleston, South Carolina. "Each book is designed to stand alone. The Great Hunt is a sequel, yes, but I've put a good deal of effort into it to ensure that whoever picks it up first will not feel left out or cheated." Since the books meld elements of Celtic, Norse, Middle Eastern and American Indian myth in a largely Medieval setting, obligatory comparisons with J.R.R. Tolkien surfaced almost immediately. Jordan accepts them with resigned good humor.

"On the one hand, I'm flattered. On the other, I would have to say it's overplayed. On the third hand, Tolkien encompassed so much in The Lord of the Rings and other books that he did for fantasy what Beethoven did for music.

"For a long time, it was believed that no one did anything that did not build on Beethoven. For his part, Tolkien did provide a foundation while himself building on an existing tradition. Although it's difficult now to forge a singular place in this foundation, people like Stephen R. Donaldson are doing it. I hope I am as well."

Throughout the years, genre fiction always has suffered from a sort of stepchild reputation, in part because so much formulaic, derivative, clumsy work has been produced in the various catagories. Then again, as Jordan points out, much the same can be said of any literary form. Regardless of the fictional landscape he explores-fantasy, Westerns, historical- he rejects the creative straitjacket whose constraints allow no deviation from a basic genre formula.

"Genre survives, Moby Dick is an adventure story, for heaven's sake. William Shakespeare wrote comedies. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote mysteries. What dooms a book is believing you have to stay within the guidelines. And with each book you write, in whatever genre, you must strive to make it better than the preceding one. You hope one day to write The Canterbury Tales, something that will last 1,000 years."

Fantasy Craftsman

Crafting his stories in a highly visual style, Jordan joins a celebrated list of contemporary fantasists and sciecne-fantasy authors composed of such names as Joan Vinge, Fred Saberhagen, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Anne Rice, Roger Zelazny and Donaldson.

But Jordan sees fantasy splitting into altogether too many lines to assay broad trends.

"You have, basically, magic realism, high fantasy and sword and sorcery, and between these reside at least a half-dozen other sub-genres. So, it's hard to see specfiic overall directions in the field."

Yet fantasy literature, with its exemplar in Tolkien, is an enduring form chiefly because it touches a deep chord in the human psyche: a desire for simpler times, with a clear distinction between good and evil. More, says Jordan, fantasy offers its own well-ordered but thematically unlimited universe.

"In hard, technological science fiction, we've gotten away from a view of the eternal conflict between good and evil. Indeed, we see everything drifting through a shade of relativistic grey. While I agree that there are many ambiguous, grey issues, there is also good and evil. And the only areas of fiction in which the distinction is clearly delineated are fantasy and horror.

"There used to be this percetion that science fiction had to be hard and technical and that people were mere window dressing to help communicate the science. Of course, this was rarely true of the best SF, which stood out for the very reason that it didn't follow the strict guidelines on what sort of fiction should be. By contrast, people are central to fantasy. And although there is no magic in my books, no incantations, the 'wizards' still tap into the power that drives the universe."

Just because Jordan happens to write fantasy, it doesn't follow that he sees life in heroic or romantic terms. Quite the contrary, at least since he began conjuring fantastic visions. "Before I began writing fantasy, I did have something of a romantic sense of the world. I was flamboyant and sort of an oddball as a kid. I still am in some ways. I made it through Machiavelli's The Prince byy age 12, which may have begun to cure me of romantic illusions."

He doesn't see the world he elaborates as unreal. Far from it.

"It exists in our past and our future. These were our legends, but because time is a wheel- according to Hindu legend-we are the seeds of their myths. Because it is a real world in my books, they have certain degrees of technology. The time in which the characters live is our future and our past. Part of what I'm exploring here is what the nature and source of our myths might be."

Jordan fantasy adventures in many respects are cinematic in tone, a legacy perhaps of his great fondness for genre films, good and bad. he says he tries to write in a way that impels readers to see the story, as well as hear, and smell and feel it.

"I approach writing stories as if they were meant to be read aloud. Many books aren't done this way and still are great books, but I try for the effect of a classic story teller. Like most other writers of fantasy, I started out not only reading fantasy but going to fantasy and science fiction movies. In more recent years, I've probably see Excalibur two dozen times. Going semi-out-of-genre, Apocalypse Now certainly had an impact on me. It had almost all the detail wrong, but its fantastic elements nonetheless capture the feel of the place, the experience, the sense of the surreal, of abandonment, of being sold out."

Jordan knows something of Southeast Asia; he served two tours of duty in Vietnam from 1968-70, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star as a helicopter crewman. He still hopes to one day write a book based on his experiences.

"But the difficulty of approaching a book on Vietnam may prevent me from doing it. There are an awful lot of people who haven't come to grips with the war, what it did to them, how it changed them."

Whether his war experiences have influenced his fantasy writing, or more, been translated directly into fiction, is difficult for Jordan to say.

"I do think the military characters in my fantasy novels are more realistic in terms of how soldiers really are, how they feel about combat, about being soldiers, about civilians. Beyond that, my time in Vietnam certainly has affected a certain moral vision. Not just based on what happened to me, but on the abandonment of a people who had put everything on the line for us. It started me off on a quest for morality, both in religious and philosophical reading, and in my writing. Again one of the central themes in 'The Wheel of Time' is the struggle between the forces of good and evil. How far can one go in fighting evil before becoming like evil itself? Or do you maintain your purity at the cost of evil's victory? I'm fond of saying that if the answer is too easy, you've probably asked the wrong question."

Genre Sculptor

Following military service, Jordan enrolled at The Citadel, earning a degree in physics in 1974. For a tme, he toiled as a nuclear engineer for the Navy. He became a writer laregely out of boredom with the works of authors he read during an extended hospital stay, recuperating from a severe knee injury.

His first book, Warrior of the Altaii, was fantasy. So was his dream of a publisher. A book contract signed by Jordan was rescinded, reputedly due to "excessive demands." Despite the setback, Jordan determined he would no longer work for anyone else, that he would henceforth write full time.

In a reversal of the path taken earlier by John Jakes, Jordan went from "generational sagas" to the fantastic. However, his first major commercial success came in 1980 with the historical novel The Fallon Blood. Eleven years later, Jordan has published works representative of many fields, including dance and theater criticism.

"I enjoy whatever I'm writing at the moment. Right now what I want to write is fantasy. But I would also like to do plays, horror, mysteries, poetry and maybe some hard science fiction. Fantasy is challenging enough. Day to day, I try to keep things fresh and vital so there's no danger of self-imitation or self-parody. At the same time, it concerns me occasionally that I might court burnout from staying too long in one world."

There was some question of that during the period Jordan wrote Conan novels. When Tor books got underway in 1981, Jordan was selected to resume the series originated by Robert E. Howard and continued by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Poul Anderson and others.

"I turned down the offer to do a Conan book initially. I was dubious about the prospect of writing in someone else's universe. But later, I agreed to do it and was surprised to find it a kick to return the character to his youth-ideal for a series aimed at adolescent readers. Writing the Conan novels necessitated following a strict framework, and, as I've said, I don't especially like that soort of externally imposed discipline. So, I had to puzzle out how I could be fresh and original within a box already constructed by others' hands.

Jordan continues to serve as a consulting editor with Tor, having edited Conan novels by Roland Green, Leonard Carpenter and Steve Perry, as well as works by other authors. "Franklly," he admits, "I think I'm a much better writer since becoming an editor."

Eternal Writer

In the realm of fantasy writing, Jordan has been less influenced than simply entertained by such works as Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and the horror writing of Stephen King.

He never reads fantasy when he is in the midst of writing it, "I read fantasies in between books. When writing, I make it a point to read other genres, plus philosophy, history, biography, mythology."

And Jordan is by any measure a voracious reader. There is something evocative of the drawing room about the man, what with his passion for pipe collecting, military history and the sedate, contemplative pursuit of chess, billiards and poker. Yet he is likewise an avid outdoorsman, having a particular relish for hunting, fishing, and sailing.

His approach to the process of writing is no less enthusiastic or studious.

"One description of the wrting process I find apropos is that you start with a block of stone. Only you don't see the stone; you see a horse within the stone. As a sculptor, you would carve it out. A writer has to claw at it with his fingernails. It crumbles and fights all the way. You work and work on a leg and just can't get it right. Sometimes, you chew the leg off. Sometimes, you chew your own leg off. Sometimes, you sweat on the leg, hoping the salt will smooth it into the desired shape and contour. Then, reviewers come along and say they like or dislike the horse. Or critics say a horse is not what you intended at all.

"Alternatively, writing fiction is telling imaginative lies. You put them on paper and somebody pays you for it. Both these ideas are equally true. And if you encompass both, you can be a writer. But you also want people to like it and you hope that what you've written is more than just tripe with a sauce on it."

Jordan's mechanics are fundamental enough. He begins by supplying a foundation, layer by layer, erecting a general outline that is the story's scaffolding. Between the layers are inserted the roughs of characters and events that lend motive force to the tale.

His outline, which can run from 20 to 40 pages, rarely is adhered to in minute detail. It's still a formative sketch-lines of charcoal on a white surface.

"My goal is to write a minimum of six hours a day. If I haven't begun writing by 11 a.m., I feel incredibly lazy. You see, writing is the mainline of my life, which may or may not be the best thing. I go back and forth on how I feel about this. I can get manic-depressive about my work. When that happens, I think I'm a lousy judge of my writing."

For Jordan, the process is by turns fluid and exacting.

"It just comes. Sometimes, it comes with great difficulty. But there's never a point when I have to ask myself, 'What do I do next?' or 'What do I say next?' This isn't to say I don't go back and make changes in the story's logic structure."

Jordan never inteded that "The Wheel of Time" be a series. It started out as one book, with a concrete beginning and end.

"But it's hard to find space for an 18-inch thick book on your shelf. I took the outline to the publisher, saying what I had here was more like four or five or six books. What can I tell you? I signed a six-book contract."

As to his various pen names, their use chiefly reflects Jordan's desire for privacy for himself and his wife, publisher and editor Harriett P. McDougal, with whom Jordan shares a pre-Revolutionary War home.

"There's also a commercial consideration having to do with what publishers will accept. If I'd write a horror novel under the name Robert Jordan, publishers will accept. But if I went with a Robert Jordan mystery-that far out of genre- there would probably be a big fight over it, the kind of distraction I would just as soon avoid. Not that I haven't had my share of disagreements with editors and publishers.

"Beyond all that, I also enjoy the multiple identities."

In his office in Charleston's storied Confederate Home, Jordan sits, pondering a measure of the eternal grail, if you will, though not a holy one.

"If you're lucky, people will be reading your books in 20 years after you're dead. If you're very lucky, they'll be reading them 50 years later, 100 years later if you're extraordinarily fortunate.

"The writer doesn't achieve immortality," says Robert Jordan. "Books do. And if people are reading and enjoying my books centuries from now, I couldn't be happier."

-- Robert Jordan '91 Interview with STARLOG / Carolyn Fusinato