On January 15, 1990, Tor Books released Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the first volume in what would become a truly epic 14-volume fantasy saga.
Right from the start, Tor Books publisher Tom Doherty and then-editorial director Harriet McDougal knew they were putting something special out into the world. Still, no one could have predicted how elaborate Jordan’s world would become, the heights it would achieve, nor the heights it continues to achieve. (Though hopefully not all paths in these heights are paved with daggers…)
Here, McDougal and Doherty sit down and discuss in detail the rise of Robert Jordan and the circumstances surrounding the creation of The Eye of the World, the beginning–well, a beginning–to The Wheel of Time.
Note: This interview took place in 2013 shortly after the release of A Memory of Light, the concluding volume in The Wheel of Time. This excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity. The full text can be found here.
Continue below to read about the creation of The Eye of the World.
TOM DOHERTY: I think [Robert Jordan] had only actually written two Conans when he decided to write The Wheel of Time. We talked about it a lot in ’83. I remember talking about it quite a bit before we did the contract in ‘84. I thought The Fallon Blood was going to be a standalone and that there was only going to be the one book on the Southern sweep of history. It ended up being three. We began talking about an epic fantasy: one book, then maybe three books like The Lord of the Rings. I just didn’t believe it would get done in three books, because by then I knew how Jim liked to tell a story. So we did the contract in early ’84. He was doing Conan books well beyond when we began talking about that in ’83. When did the first Conan book ship? ’81?
HARRIET McDOUGAL: Oh, I don’t remember. Maybe the movie you were hoping to plan your timing around was the second Conan movie?
DOHERTY: I think it was. I think it was later because we were already pretty far along in the planning of The Wheel of Time, and this was related. It just seemed natural for him to be doing that, too.
I like the Fallon books. I like the Conans he wrote. But when I read The Eye of the World, I just thought, boy, this is just wonderful. This is special.
DOHERTY: Harriet and I decided we were going to make this a bestseller. We did it in trade paper because we were afraid we couldn’t get enough out of a fat hardcover book. Trade paper wasn’t anywhere near as big then as it is now, but we thought that’s good, too, because it will call attention to itself. It’ll be different. So we did it in trade paper and sold 40,000 copies, which was huge for trade paper in those days, for the first of a fantasy series.
McDOUGAL: When I called you the first time, I was about halfway through reading the partials Jim [Rigney, Jr. Who wrote under the pen name Robert Jordan] was handing me. I said: “Tom, you got to read this one.” He said: “Yeah, why?” I replied: “Because either I’ve fallen into the wife trap after seven years of marriage, or this book is wonderful.” I sent it to Tom, and you didn’t just go the whole hog, you did the whole hog and all the piglets. A truly magnificent job of publishing.
DOHERTY: Oh, we had so much fun with that. You know, it’s funny. People think that, when you get a success like that, you don’t want to mess with it. The second book doubled the sales of the first in trade paper. So when we got to the third book, we decided to do it in hardcover, and Sales [Department] just screamed. People asked: “Why would you do that? Look how wonderfully it’s growing where it is.” And that was our first book to hit the bestseller list.
IRENE GALLO, then-Art Director: Really?
DOHERTY: Yeah, it hit the New York Times, not high up, but it did. And from then on, always up. How about you, Irene? You’ve been working on the covers for a lot of years.
GALLO: It’s hard to say. I came on in ’93, when Maria [Mellili, former Art Director for Tor Books] was here. It was already the big book of the year. Many of the cover decisions were set. My earliest memories were that the production schedules were set by hours, not days.
GALLO: There would always be four different versions of the production schedule, based on what day it came in. Contingency plans on top of contingency plans.
McDOUGAL: For one of the books, Jim and I stayed at the Murray Hill Hotel, with twin laptops. He’d do a chapter and give it to me, I’d read and edit it, and then I’d bring a disk in. I had a terrific carryall I’d bought at the Morgan Library, but it was not up to carrying my laptop and gave up the ghost in the middle. That was, I think, the craziest.
GALLO: I remember Jeff Dreyfus, our production manager at the time, spent the days walking back and forth from the office to the hotel.
McDOUGAL: And Jim ended up having to stay up here to proofread. It was going to take a week or more, and I had to go back and deal with stuff at home. That’s funny about the production schedules by hour, though. I’d never heard that.
GALLO: They would set up four of them: if it comes on Monday, it’s this, but if it comes in late Tuesday, it’s this.
DOHERTY: But hey, you know, it worked. We did a book each year, and each book built. By the time we got to the fourth book, we were selling the first book in mass market paperback. It was hooking people and bringing them in. Then the next book would grow, because people wouldn’t want to wait. A Memory of Light was the biggest first day we’ve ever had.
McDOUGAL: Which is something.
DOHERTY: Yep. Harriet’s agent, Nat Sobel, just sent us an e-mail saying it’s number one in England, too, right now. They said it outsold the one behind it [on the bestseller list] four-to-one.
McDOUGAL: It’s so nice that missing Christmas didn’t hurt. [Note: A Memory of Light was released on January 8, 2013.] I really worried about that, but we just needed the time to comb its hair.
DOHERTY: It had to be done right. It’s just too important not to do it right. Rushing wouldn’t work for this.
The Wheel of Time series has had some of the most iconic and memorable covers in all of fantasy. In the final part of their discussion, Tom, Harriet and Irene talked about the series’ artwork.
McDOUGAL: I get a lot of questions about Dannil, the character who was cut out of The Eye of the World. Dannil sort of figures in that cover painting. [Referring to a painting of an Eye of the World poster in Tom Doherty’s office.] There’s an extra character in there. He has a ghostly life.
DOHERTY: Darrell Sweet was doing many of the biggest fantasies in the 1990’s.
McDOUGAL: Yes, using his work was a big expense for a little company. It was one of the ways in which you did such a superb job of publishing. Also, what’s so nice about the gorgeous Michael Whelan cover for the last book is that it’s obviously a Michael Whelan, but he very tactfully made it so that when you rack them all out, they look like family. That was a lovely thing he did.
GALLO: It is. He did a good job. The palette and composition really works with the other covers. I didn’t envy him the job and he turned it into a nice tribute as well as a conclusion.
McDOUGAL: And [snake wheel logo artist] Sam Weber is so nice. I keep trying to call him Sam Weller because of Dickens. He said Whelan called him once and asked: “What’s a ter’angreal?”
Looking at The Way of Kings, I had an extraordinary coincidence. A friend of mine’s former wife is a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington. She’s a descendent of John Martin, an English painter also known as Mad Martin. He was the highest paid artist in Great Britain in the 1840’s, and then he sank into total obscurity until a couple of war refugees rediscovered and resurrected his works after World War II. One of his paintings is the cover of The Way of Kings, except that there’s a big pantheon where the guy is in the distance.
GALLO: I’m going to look that up.
McDOUGAL: His skies are very much like Michael Whelan’s. He was doing all that stuff way back then. I don’t know if Whelan’s ever looked at him, but it looks as if he has. Those fabulous skies of Whelan’s.
[Note: While many of Martin’s paintings have a similar composition to Whelan’s cover to The Way of Kings, we surmise that McDougal is specifically referring to “The Last Man”. You can–and in fact should because all of the pieces are epic–view all of Martin’s work here to judge for yourself.]
I also loved the ornaments [chapter icons]. We worked with Matt Nielsen creating those. They were really good. The emblem that we used for the Blight is a tree, and I was trying to tell him what I needed. I said I wanted Arthur Rackham, and he said: “Who?” I said: “Well, okay, let’s try and work on this.”
GALLO: He couldn’t Google it at that point, either.
McDOUGAL: No, but he did such a good job. The fans really caught onto them, thinking about their symbolism. “What do these ornaments mean?” They did, in fact, have a bit of a coded meaning. Lanfear’s symbol means Lanfear is lurking in this chapter, even though she’s not named.
It was fun, working on those ornaments. From the beginning, I did most of the chapter titles, all but one or two each book. I was very proud when somebody told me, many years ago, that he saw a chapter titled “Footprints in Air” in the table of contents and that made him buy the book. Well, great, that’s the idea.
GALLO: Every piece of it counts. The whole package.
McDOUGAL: I really wanted to do something we hadn’t followed through with: the Wheel of Time in front and back. Back in the twenties, there was a wonderful children’s book with a bullet hole that ran through the whole book. It was by Johnny Gruelle, who later did Raggedy Ann and Andy. It was a wonderful thing. I would have loved a book that had the Snake Wheel in the front of the book, the big one, and one in the back of the book, so you could really hold them like that to reinforce “There are neither beginnings nor endings—
DOHERTY: —in the Wheel of Time.” Practically, to do that right you would have had to put it on the endpapers. We had such nice endpapers.
McDOUGAL: Oh, yeah. Well, the map was more important.