Thus Spake The Creator

Fantasy as a genre

Q: Why Fantasy as a genre? 
A: Why a duck? Why not a duck? 

Q: Do you feel that the fantasy genre of literature has any importance in society, and if so, what is its importance?
A: Well, I think it has too many levels of importance to go into all of them here, but the one that is very clear to me is the human need for myth. We have tried to scrape away, carve away, all the myths in our lives, but we do have that need. It can be demonstrated as simply as by looking at the rise of urban legends. Humans have a deep need for myth, and fantasy literature helps to provide that, I think. Or at least to provide an outlet for that need.

Q: Welcome, Robert! We're thrilled to have you with us here. Why do you think "The Wheel of Time" series has struck such a chord with fantasy readers? Do you have any speculations about its amazing popularity? 
A: No, I don't really. I write stories...I try to write stories about real people. I'm really glad the books are popular. But, I don't really have any clue why they're so popular, except possibly the fantasy element. I think that we have a real need for fantasy as human beings. Actually Terry Pratchett says it quite clearly. He says that by believing in things that don't exist, we set ourselves up to believe in other things that don't exist such as justice and mercy.

Q: Jordan, a veteran of the Vietnam war, has definitely connected with his audience, both male and female. And he has some definite thoughts as to why fantasy literature is so popular. 
A: Two things, really, I think. One, you can talk about good and evil, right and wrong, and nobody tells you that you're being judgemental. And the other thing is, in fantasy there's always the belief that you can overcome whatever obstacles there are, that you _can_ make tomorrow better. And not only that you _can_, but that you _will_, if you work at it.

Q: Mr. Jordan, I'm a dedicated fan of your series who's bought all of the books in hardback, and first I'd like to thank you for bringing such a wonderful world to life for us. It seems to me that your work is something relatively new in fantasy -- you're exploring a situation where there is no known quest or goal to be fulfilled in order for victory to be assured. Instead it seems more like the real world: uncertain, with the heroes fighting a war without knowledge of the "victory conditions." Would you care to comment?
A: I wanted to write a fantasy that reflected the real world, with characters who reflected real people -- not specific people, but characters who were real people. And there are things about the real world that I wanted, such as that people who end up heroes very rarely set out to be heroes, and heroic journeys consist mainly of sleeping rough and going hungry, wondering how you are going to pay for the next meal and wonder exactly what it is you are supposed to do and how are you going to get out of it alive.

Q: The Chicago Sun-Times calls your work "A fantasy tale seldom equaled and still more seldom surpassed in English." This is rather high praise! What does fantasy mean to you? Why did you decide to write epic fantasy? 
A: It is certainly high praise—embarrassingly high! I chose fantasy in large part because of its flexibility. It is possible to talk about right and wrong, good and evil, with a straight face in fantasy, and while one of the themes of the books is the difficulty of telling right from wrong at times, these things are important to me. There are always shades of gray in places and slippery points—simple answers are so often simply wrong—but in so much "mainstream" fiction, there isn't anything except gray areas and slippery points, and there isn't ten cents worth of moral difference between "the good guys" and "the bad guys." If, indeed, the whole point in those books isn't that there is no difference. Besides, while I read fairly widely, fantasy has been in there since the beginning. My older brother used to read to me when I was very small, and among my earliest memories are listening to him read Beowulf and Paradise Lost. I suppose some of it "took." 

Q: What does your fan mail tell you of the chords you've struck to create such a devoted following?
A: In large part, that I've created characters people believe in. One fairly common comment is that the reader knows somebody just like Mat or Nynaeve or whoever, or that they feel they could meet them around the next corner. Character is very important to me; story flows from character. Also, I suspect that the strong interweaving of mythologies from a number of cultures plays a part, too. Modern society—at least in the West—pretends that we have outgrown the need for myth and legend, but people seem to hunger for them. Where we have forgotten our myths we create new ones, although today we don't realize what we are doing. But then, maybe people never did truly realize what they were doing in making myth; perhaps it has always been an unconscious act. The cultural trappings surrounding myth and legend vary widely by country, but if they are stripped to the bare core you find among them the same stories repeated over and over around the world. However different their cultures, customs, and mores, people share many of the same needs, hopes, and fears. Anyway, I believe there is a strong echo of myth and legend in my writing, and I think people feel that. 

''There are things I am saying, things I am talking about, but I try not to make them obtrusive. The necessity to struggle against evil, the difficulty of identifying evil, how easy it is to go astray, are very simple questions. In modern mainstream fiction, if you discuss good and evil, you're castigated for being judgmental or for being old-fashioned. Originally this was a way of deciding which was the greater wrong - 'It is wrong to steal, but my child is starving to death. Obviously, in that situation it is better to steal than to let my child die of hunger.' But today that has been transmogrified into a belief that anything goes, it's what you can get by with, and there is no real morality, no right, no wrong – it's simply what produces the Platonic definition of evil: 'a temporary disadvantage for the one perceiving evil.' 
''In fantasy, we can talk about right and wrong, and good and evil, and do it with a straight face. We can discuss morality or ethics, and believe that these things are important, where you cannot in mainstream fiction. It's part of the reason why I believe fantasy is perhaps the oldest form of literature in the world, at least in the western canon. You go back not simply to Beowulf but The Epic of Gilgamesh.
''And it survives pervasively today. People in the field of science fiction and fantasy are willing to accept that the magic realists are fantasy writers, but to the world at large, 'Oh no, that's not fantasy, that's literature.' Yes it is fantasy. And a lot of other things, that are published as mainstream, really are fantasy but not identified as such. We really have quite a pervasive influence.

Q: What got you into writing fantasy?
A: Fantasy is an area where it is possible to talk about right and wrong, good and evil, with a straight face. In mainstream fiction and even in a good deal of mystery, these things are presented as simply two sides of the same coin. Never really more than a matter of where you happen to be standing. I think quite often it's hard to tell the difference. I think that quite often you can only find a choice between bad and worse. But I think it's worth making the effort and I like to expose my characters to that sort of situation.

Q: Do you think literary critics take you seriously as a good writer despite your writing of fantasy?
A: Some do, and some don't. That's the way it always works. But I would like to add there is a lot of fantasy out there that does not call it fantasy. The magic realists are fantasists. (A.S) Byatt is a fantasist. A good many mainstream literary writers are fantasists. So maybe the critics won't put things down, just because they are fantasy, quite as readily as they once did.

Q: Why do stories of the titanic battles between good and evil seem to attract such a large and loyal audience?
A: Because most people believe in good and evil, in right and wrong. And I think most people would like to believe that they would stand on the side of good -- of right -- however they happen to define those things.

Q: Is this what you wanted to do when you were a kid?
A: I wanted to be a writer.
Q: Why fantasy?
A: I'll tell you. I learned to read at a very early age.
Q: How old were you?
A: Four. I never read children's books. The first book I read by myself, the second half of it, at least, was "White Fang." My older brother would read it to me when he was stuck babysitting and somehow or other I began making the connection between what was coming out of his mouth and the words on the page.
And I do remember. It must have a weekend, because it was the day and my parents came back and my brother put the book on the shelf and took off. He always read to me what he wanted to read, usually not children's books. And I wanted to know the rest of it, so I got the book back down and worked my way through it. I didn't get all of the words, but I got enough to do the story.
And I remember a particular incident when I was five, which is when I realized that I really wanted to be a writer. I had finished reading "From Europe To the Moon" and "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn." I put those three books on the table, standing up on end, and I sat in a chair with my feet on the chair and my chin on my knees and I looked at those books and said, "I'm going to do that one day. I'm going to write one day, make stories like that."
Q: How did you get from there to the world of fantasy?
A: Well, the short version is that in fantasy you can write about things that you can't write about in mainstream fiction, or even in some other genres and still keep a straight face today. Right and wrong are taken to be simply two faces of one coin. It's simply a matter of looking in the same mirror, but you're standing at two different points, that there's no difference. And I believe that there is a difference.
Q: You mean in fiction today?
A: Yes, yes. In so much fiction it is a great effort to show just how many flaws the good guys have and just how many extenuating circumstances the bad guys had. They had terrible childhoods and were abused children and suddenly you find yourself feeling almost sympathetic toward someone who is out and out evil. I don't like that.
I know too many people who had miserable childhoods -- grew up in the slums and a ghetto and they did okay. They didn't come out bent. They didn't come out twisted, so I don't like that very much.
I think it's hard to tell the difference between right and wrong. Sometimes a situation comes along and the only choice you have is between bad and worse. But I believe it's necessary to make the effort to try and find a difference. The other way it becomes very sloppy and it's very easy to just make your decision on the spur of the moment, without any thought about what you are doing. You never think that it's right or wrong, or you never even think about whether you are choosing between bad and worse. You're simply doing something for your own advantage.
Q: That attitude, however, is very much a reflection of society.
A: That is a reflection of society, and it is part of society that I reject. I believe that you have to make that choice. I'm not going to tell anybody what to think, I'm not going to tell anybody what to do or what wrong is, but I think you have to try to make that decision yourself. And it goes beyond simply what's good for me today.
I don't preach in my books. I just have my characters face some hard choices and have difficulty making their decisions. It's not always easy. It's not always cut and dry, and when somebody does something that is just for their own temporary advantage, to get a quick payoff, it doesn't always turn out the way they like it.
Q: Do you manage to get this philosophy into your work?
A: Well, I try to. I try to. Again, what I am doing basically is telling stories. But I like to have my characters in what amounts to real life situations. That is, making hard decisions and finding out that the easy answer is quite often the wrong one, and that very often the right thing to do is the hardest thing to do. It's just a matter of fitting it into the story. I'm not preaching. I just try to reflect these situations and these things in the story.

Q: In Holland there is some contempt to the genre of fantasy.
A: Well, there's some contempt everywhere.
Q: Well, I can't speak for the rest of the world, but what do you think of that?
A: I think it's foolish. There are many more people who write fantasy than are tagged with the ghetto-phrase fantasist, or fantasy writer. If you read A.S. Byat, or 'The Magic Realists' you're reading fantasy. If you read any novel which has ghosts or spirits or time-weaving back and forward.. many, many supposed main-streak writers write fantasy. And they just don't call it fantasy, eh.. the worlds in their books are not set in reality at all, and that is fantasy. And... eh, Midsummernight's dream, the epic of Gilgamesh, which is ... all over, it's a fantasy. I like to think of science fiction and horror as subsets of fantasy. They're particular sorts of fantasy.

The first specific question for Jordan was asked why he chose to write a fantasy series, instead of going for historical novels.
A: Well, in terms of history, I see some similarity to the writing of a fantasy novel and the writing of a history novel. In both cases you are presenting a world that is totally strange and alien to the reader. And if you don't believe that, read a good novel set three hundred years ago, one that really describes the life and you'll find very little recognizable in it.
So there is a great deal of similarity there. The major difference is that if you're writing a good historical novel you must place the historical events where they actually happened, not shift them about at your own convenience. In a fantasy novel you can shift history for your own convenience. It's a great..., a great aid.
Q: And that's attracted you because you felt your hands free to...
A: That's, that's a part of it. Another part of it is that I felt I could discuss things writing fantasy that I couldn't dicuss writing in other genres, things that I would have to ... sidestep. There's a great deal of the struggle between good and evil. I'm trying to decide what is good, and what is evil, what's right, what is wrong, am I doing the right thing? Not by preaching; simply the characters keeping face with a situation or they're gonna make a decision; they don't know enough, don't have enough information, and they don't know what the results are going to be; oh they know what the results are gonna be and they're wrong. We'll give them that. At least wrong a lot of the times. And they have to blunder on and blunder through anyway, cause that's all there is to do. But if I wrote about that, if I tried to say that there is a right, there is a wrong, there is good, there is evil, it's tough to tell the difference, but you really have to make the try. ... it's worth the effort to try. If I said that in a mainstream novel, it would be laughed out of town.

Fantasy is the literature of hope. In fantasy there is a belief that you _can_ make a difference. Today may be bleak, but you can live through today. And tomorrow will be better. And maybe there'll be a different darkness tomorrow, but you can live through that, too and you can make the light come, and the darkness go away. It doesn't matter how many times the darkness comes. There is always hope for something better. I think that that is the central core running through fantasy. And having said that... I have to apologize, by the way, I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. I'm a bit groggy, a bit punchy. And I'm trying very hard to hold on to my thoughts and to my line of reasoning and not go off on strange and aweful tangents. I think what I'm going to do now is ask who would like to ask me a question.

Q: Is fantasy also disregarded in the USA?
A: Yes. There is an exception in ..., he works for the New York Times, a culture editor, not a literary editor. But that's very good. He seems to understand what I'm writing about. But fantasy is by and large dismissed as less.

What do you think of Fairs such as the Elf Fantasy Fair here? Should more be held, to satisfy the needs of the ever-growing Fantasy-public?
I think so, of course. In the United States, there are many things like this, conventions as they’re called. Every weekend in the US, there’s at least one, often three or four, sometimes five or six, conventions in different parts of the country, every single weekend of the year. Those conventions can be small, where there are three or four hundred fans, five hundred fans, who have gotten together for a three day weekend. They start gathering at Friday afternoon and take off to go back to their jobs and work on Sunday afternoon. And mainly when people that have gotten together at a small convention like that, they will have gotten together maybe ten authors. Maybe nobody’s famous at a small convention like that, the authors aren’t famous. And some painters, professional painters, maybe to some average they hold an art-show, [..] judges competition, costumes, parties at night, singing of songs. And then there are the big conventions that maybe two thousand or three thousand, in some cases five thousand. And instead of ten writers they have thirty or forty or fifty writers. And almost certainly at a convention like that there’ll be someone well-known, famous, and illustrator and all the rest of it. I think that there are such conventions around Europe, I know, but yes, of course I think there should be more.

Q: What inspired you to write in the fantasy genre?
A: Some stories need to be told in certain genres, and fantasy allows the writer to explore good and evil, right and wrong, honour and duty without having to bow to the mainstream belief that all of these things are merely two sides of a coin. Good and evil exist, so do right and wrong. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference, just as it can be difficult to know what is the proper thing to do, but it is worth making the effort.

Reports from signings

The reason RJ chose to write fantasy was its opportunities to build cultures and experiment with them, in a way and with a freedom to comment that is unacheivable with a "realistic", domestically based world. The story of TWoT evolved during a very long period, in part beginning in the middle of the seventies with the idea of the Breaking of the World, before he found the "final scene in the final book" and began to actually write TEotW.

Pratchett: Science Fiction and Fantasy fans are better then football fans because Star Trek fans don't get in huge fight with each other
(Jordan: Well, that's not entirely true, I remember one occasion where a group of Klingons and a group of Romulans at one convention got into such a big fight that they'd actually needed to call the police to break them up.) [laughter]
Pratchett: Star Trek fans don't get into heated battle with Babylon 5... well, nevermind that. [more laughter]

 

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