Apr 30 2010 10:39am

JordanCon: Interview with Harriet McDougal

So, as I said in the recap post, I got a whole slew of interviews while at JordanCon, lost them, then got them again. To that effect, I want to thank Harriet not just for her time once, but twice. Now, without further fluff, my interview with Harriet McDougal, editor of The Wheel of Time and widow of James Oliver Rigney Jr., better known as Robert Jordan.

RF: What was the biggest challenge of being your husband’s editor?

HM: As we got into The Wheel of Time, the biggest challenge was that we were always behind the eight ball as far as delivery dates to New York went. That was one of the biggest challenges, keeping the pressure off of him, and dealing with it myself and getting my work done in double time.

The other biggest challenge was keeping Tom Doherty from making editorial suggestions to Jim, because every time he did that, poor Jim would be stopped dead in his tracks. He’d lose about a month while he was brooding about that. So eventually, I told Tom, “Just don’t, unless you want another late book.” And Tom was very good about it once I explained the problem to him, I think. I don’t know why it was so difficult for Jim to accept that from Tom, but it was.

RF: Did you ever feel any conflict between the husband-wife relationship and the editor-author one?

HM: No. No, I didn’t. I respected his work as a writer from the very beginning, and he respected my work as an editor. And if we had disagreements—we had them—the sun didn’t go down on them.

RF: In a standard author-editor relationship, you would typically get the manuscript in a whole piece. I am guessing this was not the case with you and Jim?

HM: That would be correct. He would bring in a chapter or two in the evening, and we’d have supper, and the next day I’d edit that, and plunk it down on the table and wait for the next chapter. It is called “curb-side editing,” but that is how it had to work. And if there was something really dire, I would tell him. One time, I told him “We have three chapters here of talking heads. Can we have some action?” So somebody gets murdered in those chapters. And I’m not going to tell you who, and it was not Asmodean.

RF: Did Jim talk to you about where he was going with a story as he wrote it?

HM: No, it was a surprise because I really pretty much had to have it that way. If he told me about it ahead of time, I would look at it on the page and think “I’ve heard this stuff, before. This isn’t fresh,” forgetting that it was he who told me.

But we did go out for lunch once, towards the end of The Eye of the World, and he said “I want to talk to you about some people who are turning up in the series,” and I said OK. He wanted to discuss the Aiel and how it would happen if a Maiden had a child. Well, you know the Aiel don’t even appear until book three except for the guy in the cage. So, he was planning that far ahead, and he wanted to bounce it off of me.

And at the end, he was concerned about a young woman’s reaction to her mother’s love affair, and did that read true to me as a woman. He would do that very occasionally; his women were great. In fact, in an early signing, there were some women in shawls who came up to him and said “You’re Robert Jordan? We were sure that was the pseudonym of a woman, ‘cause your women are so well written.” That pleased him to no end. He loved that.

RF: Did you feel like he ever had trouble writing strong female characters, or had to struggle with it?

HM: No, he was a natural. He liked to say, “The women in my family are strong women, and the men are strong because the women killed and ate the weak ones.” Well, he did say that. It wasn’t true. I never saw any bones, anyway.

RF: Let’s talk about Brandon Sanderson a little bit. You have been working very closely with him for a few years now.

HM: Yes, and he is wonderful.

RF: Was there any sort of adjustment period to getting used to working with his work style verse Jim’s?

HM: Well, there was an adjustment period for both of us. I had not been his editor before, and when he first sent in material, I was unable to deal with it. I was still too lost in grief. I just couldn’t deal for two months or so, and Brandon was just great and said, “Harriet, was this very, very hard for you?” And I said, “Yes.” I mean, he’s just a lovely, super person. It is a pleasure to work with him. He is not just a pro and one heck of a storyteller, but just so nice. It has been better than I could have ever expected, working with him.

RF: So you have done a single pass-through of line-editing on his upcoming novel, The Way of Kings. What was the difference in working on something that was solely Brandon Sanderson verse working on the Wheel?

HM: The characters of The Wheel of Time, I have known since they first came into being, for many of them twenty years. I know how they talk, so I’m much bitchier about them, and will say “NO! This is not Aviendha! Try again!” And he did, and he got her. But these are his people, so it is different. I don’t say, “I don’t like this character,” because it is his character and his world.

RF: Brandon often says that Jordan was one of his biggest muses for why he even started writing. Can you see that in his writing?

HM: Well, Brandon has said that he decided to have his own books confined in a city because he could not possibly do the “galloping over the landscape” thing as well as Robert Jordan, that he was defining himself in terms of Jordan’s epic fantasy, if that makes sense.

RF: Yeah, he was trying to find his own voice.

HM: Yes, yes, and he’s got some good haring across the landscape stuff in his book.

RF: I also noticed that, in the reading from The Way of Kings last night, he definitely has picked up Jordan’s flair for description.

HM: Yes, it is very good. He is different from Robert Jordan, but he is launching on a career that will resemble Jordan’s. I feel extra lucky that I got him to work on The Wheel of Time when I did, because as you can tell from his books, Brandon has his own huge trajectory.

RF: Indeed, after all, he has said the Stormlight Archive will be ten novels from the get-go.

HM: Yes, but it is not just quantity, but quality. He has wonderful world-building.

RF: Stepping back, we have just passed the twentieth anniversary of the series and The Eye of the World. Some people have gone so far as to compare The Wheel of Time to Tolkien and his influence on fantasy. How do you feel it has affected fantasy in general?

HM: Yes, certainly The Times compared them. But, it’s just damn good. That is really how it has affected it. A writer friend said he thought the thing that Jim did special was to take Tolkien at one end of the fantasy spectrum and Conan on the other end and combine them, which is interesting for its time.

RF: So, a middle-ground of low, pulp fantasy and high fantasy?

HM: Well, not low pulp, but barbarian fantasy. The muscular Cimmerian, and those books are really quite good. I am rereading them, and in Conan Chronicles number one, it is very obvious to me, looking back, that Jim was brooding about the events in Afghanistan at that time. He’s got them right in there. That is not something you usually find in pulp fiction very often. Where the author is incorporating thoughts about current events into a fantasy world, and of course he has done that: Children of the Light, hello?

RF: One can take it even further with The Wheel. Even the magic system, which is very scientifically based, lends us to call it magical Sci-Fi. So perhaps some of the other concepts of Sci-Fi are there too, such as social commentaries or looking at issues from other angles.

HM: Yes! And the big thing about fantasy is that you can address questions of good and evil without making people run for cover and thinking “Oh my God, he’s going to turn into a preacher any minute now.” But, making his great theme of making decisions without enough information is so true.

And, his early fan letters, I noticed, would come from two large categories of adult: people in law enforcement and people in medicine: doctors, nurses, policemen, district attorneys. What do these groups have in common? They’re making life and death decisions, every day, without enough information. The policeman, should he draw his weapon? If so, he will probably be shot at himself. The doctor, dealing with a person who is dying, and you never have enough information.

RF: And sometimes, you just have to act.

HM: Yes, and how you do that is a major theme in the series, and how you can be expected to have to do that.

RF: OK. Without using the letters R-A-F-O, who killed Asmodean?

HM: I’m not going to tell you! Will that do instead of RAFO?

RF: Aw... we have a new acronym: INGTTY. Harriet McDougal, thank you.

HM: Indeed.

Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and one heck of a lucky person to get this interview. More of his rambling and some of his short stories can be found at

Tricia Irish
1. Tektonica
Wonderful! You lucky guy. Harriet seems so genuine and obviously bright and witty and in love with her husband and the material. Good interview and excellent questions! Thanks so much!
James Hogan
2. Sonofthunder
Wow, lovely interview!! You were indeed most fortunate to get time to sit down and talk with her, someday maybe I'll get the chance to meet her!! And, great questions! Even if you did run into the Harriet-wall with the Asmo-question. Good try, anyway.
craig thrift
3. gagecreedlives
Cool interview mate. Im pretty jealous at the moment
Sean Banawnie
4. Seanie
Thanks for your patience Harriet , so this could be shared with us. (I am glad we didn't have to click a link--would not have trusted that.) Its obvious that you and Jim were both lucky. You had him but he had you... To live together and work together--each difficult on its own but triply difficult together. But triply rewarding , too. Lucky indeed. Mat lucky... Also , great choice with Brandon. But I am sure you've heard that a million times, like most of our sentiments....again thanks for your patience !
Ron Garrison
5. Man-0-Manetheran
Wow! Great interview! We are so lucky that you went back and re-interviewed Harriet after the loss of the first recording. I find Harriet fascinating, and I really hope to meet her some day.

I'm glad she brought up the Conan books. Many people dismiss them as so much pulp novel trash, but they are not. Once when I was soooo tired of waiting for a new WoT book, I came upon these stories. And when I've re-read them I see so much of Robert Jordan in them. Even phrases that he loved: "with a smile that did not reach her eyes."

Thanks so much for this. I've copied and pasted it into my WoT reference files!
Bonnie Andrews
6. misfortuona
Excellent interview, and really what everyone else has already said. What an awsome experience it must have been working together as you did.

Mis-envious of Richard again
7. alreadymadwithinterview
It's refreshing to see Harriet chat and smile like that. The only pictures I really remember of her were from RJ's funeral.
Thomas Keith
8. insectoid
Great interview, Richard! One of these days (next year TLW) I'll get to meet this wonderful lady. :)

Alice Arneson
9. Wetlandernw
Thanks!! Good times. I'd dearly love a chance to just chat with her; she seems like a wonderful person. Her quote on Jim's "strong women" cracked me up! and it's great to see her still enjoying the years they had together, even when it's got to be bittersweet now. It's a good marriage, to have that kind of continuity.
Tess Laird
10. thewindrose
Awesome Richard -if I may slice:

Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and one heck of a lucky person to get this interview.
HM: Indeed.

Very cool!

April Moore
11. aprildmoore
Harriet is indeed a lovely person -- as well as having huge editorial-fu! I'm so thankful she continued with this work so we could all enjoy the continuation of her husband's legacy.

Props to Richard, too - well done, sir! The Yellow Ajah would be proud. :-)
John Massey
12. subwoofer
Hmmmmmm... either my whole theory of Karma is severely screwed up, because there should be some roasting for all the rickrolls, or somewhere along the way you saved a busload of nuns.

Aw well, good on you Fifester:) It must have been a thrill to talk with somebody who has had a hand in influencing all of us hanging out here. Cool Beans!

Wayne Wilson
13. stylusmobilus
Thanks for this.

They must have had a wonderful life together. What I wouldn't give to have that type of partnership in my life.

The quality of their partnership is reflected in the quality of the work.

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