In Robert Jordan's fantasy world, wars raged, Trollocs and Halfmen ravaged the land, and the forces of Light and Dark faced off for a final battle. It was a world of wonder that held millions of armchair adventurers enthralled for almost two decades.
But then Jordan's time on this earth ended, and the inhabitants of his world ceased to breathe. It seemed that the Last Battle would not be chronicled.
But like all great heroes, Jordan's protagonists refused to die. Over the course of 11 hefty Wheel of Time books, he'd encouraged a huge fanbase to explore and embellish his world on the internet, in comic books, RPGs, video games and music. Sites sprang up with names like Age of Legends, Theoryland, and WOTmania. And one fan would post a eulogy so touching that it captured the attention of Jordan's widow and series editor, Harriet McDougal.
To the 44 million readers who bought a Wheel of Time book, Jordan was a cross between Tolstoy and Tolkien, a writer of hardcore fantasy fiction who created a believably complex mythos packed with warriors, magic, and prophesies. To McDougal and other residents of the polite pocket of calm that is Charleston, he was just plain ole Jim Rigney.
McDougal, a kind-hearted film buff with streaks of white gilding her dark hair, says that the couple purposely chose to live off the radar of the New York publishing pundits. "If you listen to [all their praise] it makes you crazy," she says.
By contrast, Charlestonians tended to treat Rigney like a regular fellow. When his first Wheel of Time best-seller The Eye of the World came out in 1990, they would greet him with, "Hi Jim, are you still writing?" While McDougal admits that they could have lived a quiet life anywhere if they'd chosen, Charleston was their home and a place where Rigney could work at his own, often breakneck, pace. Every day he would get up, have breakfast, then pad down the yard to his desk in his carriage house. The pages he forged there were packed with intense battle scenes, dense interwoven plots, and a vast cast of characters. This material was tempered by McDougal, Rigney's assistant Maria Simons, and series continuity manager Alan Romanczuk.
In 2006 Rigney announced that he had a rare medical disorder called cardiac amyloidosis, caused by a build-up of amyloid protein in the heart. The average life expectancy for someone with his condition was four years. In that time, he would do his best to finish The Wheel of Time saga with one more book. Eighteen months later, he was gone.
Rigney had worked so hard and for so long to wind up his saga that his widow felt it was her mission to see the series finished. "My husband left a tremendous amount of material," McDougal says. "My duty is to that above all." The author had made outlines and copious notes, along with about 50,000 words for at least one more book. Some chapters were finished, merely requiring an edit by McDougal. Some scenes were fully defined. As his illness progressed, he'd told an oral version of the story, which was recorded on tape by his friends and family. This enabled McDougal to create a comprehensive outline of his planned final book. But these breakdowns and fragments still had to be inserted into a complete novel by a new writer, with Rigney's notes as a thorough guideline.
Near the end of 2007, McDougal found a strong candidate when she read a eulogy blogged by a 31-year-old fantasy writer named Brandon Sanderson.
"I thought it was wonderful," says McDougal. "It was very loving. I wondered if he was any good." She checked out Mistborn, Sanderson's 2006 novel. After 45 pages, she fell asleep.
But when McDougal woke up, his characters and all the book's elements were perfectly clear in her mind. She'd found her guy.
Sanderson says, "Like most fans of the series, I was just shocked and saddened that Jim Rigney wasn't going to be there to finish it himself." He adds, "About a month after his passing, I woke up one morning and found that I had a voicemail. I listened to it, and it said, 'Hello, Brandon Sanderson, this is Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan's widow. I'd like you to call me back. I've got something I want to talk to you about.' "
Sanderson wasn't sure how to take it at first. The author was certain that someone was playing a joke on him. Then he started to shake nervously at the thought that it might not be a prank. "When I got hold of her, I found out that she was looking at me as one of the candidates to finish The Wheel of Time. I hadn't applied for this or anything like that."
Even though Sanderson had never met Rigney, he considered him a mentor. "I had read a lot of his books when I was trying to decide how to write myself, and he strongly influenced what I produced. But I didn't know him personally, and that's what dumbfounded me when I got the phone call," recalls Sanderson. "I was absolutely stunned. I'm afraid I stammered a bit when I told her I would be honored to be considered; in fact, a while after I got off the phone I sent her an e-mail that started, 'Dear Harriet, I promise I'm not an idiot.' "
Sanderson felt honored and overwhelmed at the same time. Although he was a respected and prolific fantasy writer with a growing career, his name on a Wheel of Time book would introduce him to hordes of new readers and send him to the top of the best-seller lists for weeks. But he would have to take time off from his own ambitious epics, and he faced a huge challenge: To be true to Jordan's work while retaining his own distinctive style.
Sanderson wrestled with the question for a long time before deciding that he would concentrate on keeping the character voices authentic and consistent. "We don't want these stories to become about Brandon," he says, "but in the same way, the original Wheel of Time books ... weren't about Jim. They were about the story and the characters. As long as I can make the characters feel right and do the story the right way, I think it will turn out all right."
Sanderson made it his "prime directive" to make sure the characters sounded like their old selves. "My second rule was that if Jim said it, the default is to do it as he said, to put it in as he said. And then rule No. 3 is that I can contradict rule No. 2 if it's necessary for the storytelling."
By considering these three rules, Sanderson ensured that Rigney's story was told consistently. "I'm continually going back and reading Jim's original notes and his previous books," says the author, "balancing that with looking at what I think he was trying to do, what he said he was trying to do, and what would make the best story. In some cases I trust my instincts as a writer, and in other cases I just say, 'This is what Jim said. We're doing it.' I can't really tell you where I draw the line, when I do one or the other. Oftentimes when the situation comes up, I'll write to Harriet and her assistants and say, 'What do you think?' "
McDougal's association had its own complications. As the book progressed, she would send her reactions to Sanderson. These didn't always equate with his own ideas or those of Simons and Romanczuk. "I've learned not to do that horrible thing to Brandon," she says. "Three different people were giving him different reactions. We weren't all on the same page."
Nevertheless, Sanderson pushed on, producing hundreds of thousands of words in a matter of months. He knew that if he succeeded, he would be set for life. If he dropped the ball, he'd disappoint a legion of fans. He felt that it was his job to please as many of them as possible, because this was as much their project as his. Without their intense desire to see the saga completed, there would be no sequel.
The new novel, The Gathering Storm, follows central characters Rand al'Thor and Egwene al'Vere. Rand prepares for the Last Battle while Egwene attempts to reunite the inhabitants of the White Tower under her rule. An attack by Seanchan forces is inevitable. Both protagonists try to piece together the fragmented factions around them in preparation for the great conflict to come.
One million copies of the book were printed for its launch on Oct. 27, 2009. It shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list, with sales encouraged by a 25-city book tour. Sanderson thought he'd feel out of place and disoriented at the first signing. Rigney's printed "autograph" was included in the book because Sanderson "felt that it would seem really strange to be signing a Wheel of Time book without his signature also there." Sanderson didn't feel as overwhelmed as he expected. "I guess that's because I had just spent 18 months to two years living in this world and living in these books."
He'd poured so much blood and sweat into The Gathering Storm that he'd earned the right to be a part of its promotion. "I still don't claim the book as my own," he says. "The book is Jim's. And yet there's a whole lot of me in there, and because of that, it felt right in a way. I didn't think that it ever would."
McDougal had gone on tour many times with her husband, where she says she "just lurked in the back." Sometimes she would find a book to read in the store they were visiting, get through a chapter, then continue reading with another copy in the next town. Every now and again people would track her down and ask, "Are you Harriet? Would you sign my book?"
With Rigney gone, McDougal found herself front and center at The Gathering Storm events. "The tour was amazing," she says. "It was awful to be out there without my husband. At the same time, people were so kind. They said, 'Thank you for finishing the series. Thank you for Robert Jordan.'"
"Harriet's a trooper," says Sanderson. "I tried to be as respectful as was possible, letting her take the lead." At some of the signings, if McDougal was present, he would ask her to do the reading. "That was really fun," he says. "Harriet was in control, though there were some hard times for her. Most of them came during the process of working on the book. When it was time to go out and promote the book, I think she just put her best face forward, and I didn't really see any of the troubles that I'm sure she was feeling."
Sanderson acknowledges what a terrible thing it is to lose someone close to you, "yet at the same time, Jim's writing was part of what drew them together in the first place. So I think I saw her finding a bit of solace in it."
The Wheel of Time fans are very vocal and some diehards were resistant to reading a new book with a different authorial voice. But the tone and characters were so consistent with the early novels that the response was generally positive.
"I don't think you can find a fan reception about anything that is all positive," Sanderson reflects. "I've certainly never seen one. Not everyone liked the book, but not everyone liked Jim's books. Heck, not everyone likes Hamlet. That's just the way we are as people. There is no way to please everyone."
The writer knows it's important to listen to the fans. "There are some one-star reviews out there, [but feedback] has been overwhelmingly positive. I very much appreciate hearing that I'm on the right course. I hope I can make the next two books turn out as well."
Those two books will be Towers of Midnight (scheduled for November 2010) and A Memory of Light (November 2011). Rigney's single concluding volume has become three because there's just too much story to cram into one book; 750,000 words would be impossible to bind. "Even Jordan couldn't have written everything he left in one volume, although he thought he could," said McDougal in a Dragonmount blog. "But you recall that he thought he could write the entire Wheel in six volumes."
Although Sanderson produced A Gathering Storm quickly and efficiently, McDougal understands that the ending can't be rushed. She quotes from the Jack Nicholson movie Wolf: "If you push a deadline, you get a first draft," she says. "If Brandon needs the time, he needs the time. It's gotta be good."
Meanwhile she's under contract to develop a Wheel of Time encyclopedia, and Rigney is the focus of The Wit of the Staircase, a documentary by local filmmaker Hunter Wentworth, son of South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth. The series continues to gain new admirers, and there are ongoing rumors of TV and film adaptations.
Beyond meeting the expectations of readers old and new, Sanderson has his own personal reasons to roll The Wheel of Time to its conclusion. "I love this series," says the author, now 34, "and I want to see the last book written as much as any other fan. For a writer like me, the next best thing to having Jim write the novel is being able to work on it myself."
Rigney's effect on Sanderson and countless others continues to amaze McDougal. "Robert was bigger than I really understood," she realizes. "He was a bigger person on the world stage than I knew. People came up to me and said, 'These books changed my life.'"
The end of the series seems more inevitable now than when Rigney was alive, constantly weaving new characters and plots with his epic imagination. After years of toil and guidance from the mentor he never met, Sanderson is ready to bring us the Last Battle. Perhaps that's what Rigney wanted all along, to build a world so rich and real that Sanderson and all his fellow readers — all of us — would become part of the story.