My son just told me that there is going to be a conference early in 2013 at The College of Charleston about the work of our friend the late Jim Rigney, author of The Wheel of Time Series and the subject of a documentary film that my son is working on called “The Wit of the Staircase.” In celebration of his life and work I wanted to post the piece I wrote for the newspaper here the week that Jim passed away.
The Loss of Jim Rigney
My youngest son Taylor put it best: “All over the world people are mourning for Robert Jordan, but here in Charleston we grieve for the loss of Jim Rigney.” In this small city of great writers, we lost a giant not only as one of the greatest writers of fantasy fiction – but also a giant of a human being.
On a personal and professional level it seems appropriate and necessary to honor this brilliant man whose generous spirit never ceased to inspire me. Jim’s inclusion in the community of Lowcountry writers brought considerable legitimacy to the city’s current literary renaissance. Although Jim was often quite private, he embraced and supported writers – especially this writer. I used to tease him and say that he was more excited about my appointment as South Carolina Poet Laureate than I was! This isn’t true, of course, but the sense of it is true. At readings and celebrations, Jim was always there cheering me on. When a writer of his caliber and reputation encourages you it means so very much.
Jim loved poetry and could recite a verse appropriate to the occasion. This may have been expected when his beloved wife Harriet was a former President of the Poetry Society of South Carolina and a poet herself. Jim attended and participated in many poetry events. During National Poetry Month a few years ago, Jim and Harriet came to a Poetry Extravaganza at Barnes & Noble in Mt.Pleasant and each read a favorite poem. Other well known Charleston writers participated – Dottie Frank and Jo Humphreys come to mind… But when Jim recited the poem by A. E. Houseman that he had had taped inside of his hooch when he was a young soldier during the Vietnam War, the audience reaction was unforgettable.
Both Jim and Harriet served on the Board of LILA, the Lowcountry Initiative of the Literary Arts. They embraced this fledgling organization designed to promote and connect writers and readers throughout the state, in ways that embody their generosity and sense of humor – creating an actual character named Lila – who was a young woman with various amusing attributes. This kind of commitment to writers and community has created a supportive environment that encourages and nurtures the young more inexperienced writers.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat children and young people, and Jim was especially generous in that way. His famous writing studio behind the house was a kind of museum – filled with weapons collected from all over the world and artifacts that fascinated my sons. All of these things were references for the objects Jim created and described in his fiction, of course, but he would explain each item in great detail to my sons and treat their questions with enormous respect. Kids are funny – they know when someone genuinely cares about them. They know when someone is really listening. And when they really like an adult, they will call the adult by their first name in the same they would call a friend by his or her first name. From the beginning the Rigneys were Jim and Harriet. In some circles this might be considered disrespectful, but the Rigneys were flattered and encouraged it.
I am overflowing with stories and memories – the week before Christmas when I discovered a box of signed Robert Jordan books beside the front door of our house – a gift for one of my high school creative writing students who was suffering from pneumonia and happened to be a huge Robert Jordan fan……. The round-trip shared limo ride (courtesy of Jim’s publisher) to a book event in Winston-Salem, and the subsequent discovery that a limousine can’t fit through the drive-through lane at Burger King….. a ceremony with guests, and hors d’oeuvres, to release my son’s turtles, which had outgrown our fish tank, released into the pond in Jim and Harriet’s backyard …..the courage he showed in the face of devastating illness and always the humor – referring to the nurses who drew his blood as vampires and ….the way Jim looked at Harriet……..
This week we mourn his tenderness and genius. He will live forever in the hearts of those who knew him and the collective imagination of millions of readers whose lives were touched by his words.
originally published in The Post & Courier September 2007