In 1977 an accidental fall from a submarine at the Charleston Naval Yard shattered his leg and knee. Postsurgical difficulties nearly killed him, and he would use a cane for much of the rest of his life. Rigney turned to writing as a way of passing his lengthy recovery time, and he composed his first (and still unpublished) fantasy novel, Warriors of the Altaii, in thirteen days.
Novelist, critic. Rigney was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on 17 October 1948, the second of three sons to James Oliver and Eva May Rigney (nee Grooms). His father, a World War II veteran, worked for a time as a policeman before he became a hand and then supervisor at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. He consistently worked odd jobs on the side to provide for his blue-collar, Baptist family. When he was four years old, James Oliver Rigney, Jr. taught himself to read with the incidental aid of a twelve-years-older brother who failed to finish a book that he was reading to his younger sibling. By the time he was five, Rigney was tackling Mark Twain and Jules Verne on his own. He remained an avid reader for the rest of his life–his library held over 14,000 books when he died.
Recruited to play football at Clemson, Rigney attended the university for a year before he volunteered for enlistment in the U.S. Army. From 1968 to 1970 he served two tours in Vietnam with the 68th Assault Helicopter Company, aka the Top Tigers, of the 145th Combat Aviation Battalion, 12th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade. Originally assigned to a clerical role in Vietnam due to his intellect, Rigney managed to use his position to get himself posted as a helicopter door gunner. He would leave Vietnam with a Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, a Bronze Star with “V,” and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry with Palm.
Returning to the United States, Rigney studied at the Citadel under the veteran’s program, graduating in 1974 with a degree in physics. He then joined the U.S. Navy (civil service) as a nuclear engineer, writing test procedures for the overhaul of nuclear submarines. In 1977 an accidental fall from a submarine at the Charleston Naval Yard shattered his leg and knee. Postsurgical difficulties nearly killed him, and he would use a cane for much of the rest of his life. Rigney turned to writing as a way of passing his lengthy recovery time, and he composed his first (and still unpublished) fantasy novel, Warriors of the Altaii, in thirteen days.
A year later, still recovering, Rigney told a Charleston bookshop owner that he was writing a “bodice-ripper” novel, and the owner passed this information to poet Harriet McDougal (nee Popham), an experienced editor for New York publisher Tor/Forge who was starting her own imprint. She left her card with the bookshop owner, who ultimately gave it to Rigney; on her encouragement he wrote a novel of historical fiction, The Fallon Blood, which was edited by McDougal and published by her Popham Press in 1980 under the pseudonym Reagan O’Neal. Rigney began dating McDougal soon afterward, and the two were married in March of 1981, around the same time that his second novel, The Fallon Pride was published by Tor/Forge. A third installment (The Fallon Legacy) followed in 1982, which also saw him publish the novel Cheyenne Raiders, this time under the name Jackson O’Reilly. McDougal continued to serve as his editor, as she would for the rest of his career. They lived in Charleston in a house built around 1797 that was praised by the writer H.P. Lovecraft in his published walking tour of the city.
Rigney returned to writing fantasy novels, now publishing under the name Robert Jordan. From 1982 to 1984 he completed seven novels reinvigorating the classic character of Conan the Barbarian: Conan the Invincible (1982), Conan the Defender (1982), Conan the Unconquered (1983), Conan the Triumphant (1983), Conan the Magnificent (1984), Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Conan the Victorious (1984). During this same period, he also wrote dance and theater criticism under the name Chang Lung, for a variety of publications including Library Journal, Fantasy Review, and Science Fiction Review.
Already a popular author, Rigney became an international bestselling phenomenon with his next fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, which began with the publication of The Eye of the World in 1990 (as Robert Jordan), the first of a planned six books. Subsequent volumes in this series (and works related to it) appeared with regularity over the next fifteen years, outstripping the original six-book vision as the scope of the project grew: The Great Hunt (1990), The Dragon Reborn (1991), The Shadow Rising (1992), The Fires of Heaven (1993), Lord of Chaos (1994, a Locus Award Nominee), A Crown of Swords (1996), The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1997, with Teresa Patterson), The Path of Daggers (1998), A New Spring (1998, a novella), Winter’s Heart (2000), Crossroads of Twilight (2003), A New Spring (2004), and Knife of Dreams (2005). For his accumulated publication successes and his lifetime of service, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from the Citadel in 1999.
In March of 2006, Rigney announced in a letter to Locus that he had been diagnosed with amyloidosis. That fall the Citadel established the James O. Rigney, Jr. Award for Creative Writing to be given annually in his honor. A far greater honor came when it was announced that he had earned a place in the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Rigney lost his battle to amyloidosis on September 16, 2007. He was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2008. After his death, his wife and editor selected the author Brandon Sanderson to complete the still-unfinished Wheel of Time series, for which Rigney had left copious instructions and materials, including plot outlines, drafted chapters, and the completed ending. The final three volumes thus appeared as works of co-authorship: The Gathering Storm (2009), Towers of Midnight (2010), and A Memory of Light (2013).
Rigney’s work has been favorably compared to that of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edward Rothstein, reviewing one of his novels for the New York Times, opined that he “has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal.” At his death he had sold more than thirty million books, and they had been translated into more than twenty languages. Rigney’s greatest success is undoubtedly the monumental Wheel of Time series, which is known for its multi-dimensional characters, intricately realized plotting, grandly epic scale, and complex usage of mythological and historical sources.
Fox, Margalit. “James O. Rigney, Jr., Who Wrote as Robert Jordan, Dies at 58.” New York Times 18 Sept. 2007.
Lilley, Ernest. “SFRevu Interview: Robert Jordan.” SFRevu (Jan. 2003).
Rothstein, Edward. “Flaming Swords and Wizards’ Orbs.” The New York Times, December 8, 1996.