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Obituaries

James Oliver Rigney Jr., 58; writer of bestselling fantasy series 'The Wheel of Time'

September 19, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

James Oliver Rigney Jr., a major voice in modern fantasy literature who wrote the bestselling series "The Wheel of Time" using the pen name Robert Jordan, has died. He was 58.

Rigney, who was working on the final volume of the long-running saga, died Sunday at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C., of complications from primary amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy, his publisher confirmed. The rare blood disease caused the walls of his heart to thicken.

Only eight people in 1 million contract the disease each year, Rigney wrote in March 2006 as he addressed his illness in the science-fiction magazine Locus.

"Few people have managed to imagine a world the way that Robert Jordan did," Wendy Bradley, editor of the science-fiction magazine Farthing told The Times. "That was a great strength of his writing. He was trying to tell a story on a heroic scale, and he was good -- he had the same grip on storytelling that J.K. Rowling has."

More than 30 million copies of the books have been sold and the series has been translated into about two dozen languages, according to Tor, his New York publisher. By the 1990s, Rigney had come to dominate the fantasy genre spawned by J.R.R. Tolkien and "The Lord of the Rings."

The "Wheel" novels tell the story of Rand al'Thor, who heroically battles evil in a mythical land and was modeled on the Norse god of justice. The increasing popularity of the fantasy genre was reflected in reader fascination with the escapist tale, and fans at book signings could range in age from their early teens to their 80s.

When asked to describe what fueled the series' incredibly complicated plot lines, Rigney often replied by saying, "What if somebody came up to this average person on the street and said, 'You are the savior of humanity.' What do you do with that?"

He had a secretary whose main job was to keep the facts straight in the elaborate world he created that spanned 11 books and almost 7,420 pages. Some critics questioned his wordiness, yet he could sum up the series' driving force in three words: "Life changes. Deal."

The series has inspired a thriving online community with hundreds of Internet sites devoted to it. Among the largest is TarValon.net, which has several thousand members, said Melissa Craib, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based site.

"An amazing community has been built around what he has created," Craib told The Times. "His thoughts and his ideas about honor and service and making it through difficult times are exceptionally inspiring to many people. It draws together people who want to embody these qualities."

On his personal blog at www.dragonmount.com, Rigney updated fans on his health and reassured them that he was working on "A Memory of Light," the 12th and last novel in the "Wheel" series. He reportedly left behind detailed notes on the novel and had shared the end of the story with his wife, Harriet, who was his editor, and a cousin.

"I am quite confident that the series will be finished," Craib said. "This is important to his legacy."

In the early 1980s, Rigney wrote a trio of historical novels set in Charleston, where he was born and lived most of his life. They were written under the pseudonym Reagan O'Neal.

He used the name Robert Jordan on the seven books he wrote in the Conan the Barbarian sword-and-sorcery series that Robert E. Howard created in the 1930s. Several writers have continued the fantasy novels, and Rigney's include "Conan the Destroyer," the novelization of the 1984 movie that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rigney used different pen names for different genres to avoid confusing his readers. As Jackson O'Reilly, he also had published a western, "Cheyenne Raiders," in 1982.

Born on Oct. 17, 1948, Rigney learned to read when he was 4 with the help of a teenage brother.

A decorated Army veteran, Rigney served two tours in Vietnam before attending the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. After graduating with a degree in physics, he became a civilian nuclear engineer for the Navy. When a fall at a naval shipyard injured his knee, Rigney was hospitalized for a month and almost died from a blood clot.

Left with a limp that forced him to use a walking stick, he decided to try to become a novelist in 1977 because "life was too short," he told USA Today in 2003.

Fantasy writing was his favorite genre because it "is an area where it is possible to talk about right and wrong, good and evil, with a straight face," Rigney said in a 2000 interview with CNN.com.

When he was well, he often worked seven to eight hours a day, seven days a week in a carriage house behind his Charleston home that was built in 1797.

A history buff, he enjoyed outdoor sports and "the indoor sports of poker, chess, pool and pipe collecting," his biography said.

To Rigney, "Wheel" was "one very long novel, with the individual books being sections of the novel," he said in a 2001 interview on the Science Fiction and Fantasy World website.

He repeatedly cautioned fans who may have chosen to get lost in "Wheel" by engaging in role-playing or card games based on the series that he was not "a guru or a sage" but simply a "storyteller."

In addition to his wife, Harriet Popham Rigney, he is survived by a son, William Popham McDougal of Houstonic, Mass.; and a brother, Reynolds W. Rigney of New Orleans.

Memorial donations may be made in the name of James Rigney to Mayo Clinic Department of Hematology -- Amyloidosis research, 200 1st St. SW, Rochester, MN 55905.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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