Last night, in the Riverview Room here at The Citadel, James Oliver Rigney, Jr. (known to readers by many names, including Robert Jordan) was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
As I told many of the other attendees of the induction ceremony, I would have been happy just to peek in through the windows. That I was asked to attend was thus positively thrilling (especially given the stiff wind off the river that would have frozen me to the glass outside). That I was subsequently asked not just to attend but to give one of the two main speeches of the evening — my own meant to summarize Rigney’s contribution to letters, the other (by the poet laureate of South Carolina) meant to summarize Rigney the man — left me nothing short of elated.
How do you encapsulate the literary life of a man who has touched millions of readers around the world? How do you sum up his contribution in ten all-too-brief minutes, addressed to an audience of poets and authors and friends and — most poignant of all — family? How do you put his impact into words?
Well, you don’t. You can’t. Or at least I can’t, anyway.
I wrote what I could, though, given the short notice I had and the severe limits on my time at this point in the semester. Reading it over last weekend, I felt like it said what I needed to say. Not what I wanted to say, mind you, but at least what was necessary. I printed it out and tried not to think about it until last night.
I live here on campus, so it was a short (and frigid) walk from home to the event. I had a bit of a scare when I arrived and was told my name was not on the guest list — I learned later that I was, but just inexplicably listed as a cadet — but the gatekeepers thankfully let me in just the same.
Small talk for an hour or so. A glass of wine. A couple bites of some delicious little desert things. A few chats with some of the 140 or so people crowding the event. Then it began.
My nervousness kicked in, oh, about two minutes before it was my time to speak. Angie Le Clercq, the Director of the Citadel Library, was telling everyone about the permanent library exhibit that will open in about a month, honoring Jim’s work (yay!). In the course of her brief remarks she made a number of references to Harriet, Jim’s beloved and talented wife, who was sitting in the front row, just to the right of the podium. I knew Harriet would be there, of course. My speech, truth be told, was really aimed at her. She was the audience in my mind as I wrote it. Yet to see her there, to feel her understandable emotion … I felt the slight tremble of fight-or-flight instincts in my arms and legs.
Angie finished, I stood up and walked to the podium. I gave my speech. (Both the text and a recording of this speech can be found here.)
I’m surely my own worst critic, but I must say that my delivery felt positively awful given the over-amped microphone, the rollercoasting of my nerves, and my acute awareness of Harriet sitting right there. My own emotions were to the point that I could only manage to glance at her a few times, knowing that too much more might break me. I will have to write her a letter apologizing for this.
A few people laughed here and there while I talked. Everyone clapped enthusiastically when I finished. Marjory Wentworth, the poet laureate, took the podium in my wake, telling a few delightful personal stories about Jim and Harriet. Her speech gave terrific insight into the character of these two true human beings.
The formal induction followed, with a number of gifts handed to Harriet, who accepted the honor for her husband — which was absolutely fitting, given the fact of her strong editorial hands helping to shape his vision. Harriet then took the podium.
Just a short bit into her response, she notified us all that in addition to the permanent exhibit opening up, there will be a panel discussion at The Citadel library about Jim’s work on 8 April. There will be three speakers, she said. The first will be David Drake, a rather well-known writer of military Science Fiction (among other things).
Wow, I thought. David Drake will be at The Citadel. Pretty cool.
The second speaker, Harriet said, will be Brandon Sanderson, the Fantasy writer chosen to complete the twelfth and final volume in Jim’s famed Wheel of Time series.
Holy smokes, thinks I. Not sure what I’m doing that night, but it’s canceled.
Harriet pauses when it comes to announcing the third speaker, and she looks back to Angie LeClercq. “Can I go ahead and ask him now?”
Harriet smiles. Then she looks over at me. “The third speaker will be Michael, if he’s willing to do it.”
I’m a bit hazy on what happened at just that moment. I think I gave two thumbs up to signal my willingness. I have no doubt I grinned like a buffoon. I’m also pretty sure that most of the audience suddenly started clapping. When things quieted down a bit Harriet said that they would have asked earlier but they wanted to hear my speech first, to see if I was okay. Everyone laughs. I’m sitting with a number of our cadets — in their medal-bedecked finery — so I motion to them, “I’m just glad you listened to the speech instead of checking up on me with these folks.” More laughter.
Harriet finishes her remarks. My head is still spinning. Fresh air, I think. Just need to shake my head out of the cloud I’m floating off in.
The applause ending the ceremony concludes. We all stand up. The cadet beside me shakes my hand, telling me what a great speech I gave. Another cadet does the same. Then another. And then I turn — looking for that fresh air — and find that there’s a growing gathering of people waiting to shake my hand.
Each one thanks me, tells me what a terrific speech I gave. A few have damp eyes. A couple don’t seem to want to let go of my hand. A number of them give me business cards and — not for the first time — I lament the fact that The Citadel does not supply its professors with business cards. (Like our uniforms, we’re expected to pay for them ourselves, and I never have; perhaps it’s time I did so.)
I never got that fresh air. And things were happening so fast that I regretfully admit I don’t remember everyone I met over the next hour or so. There’s David Goble, the Director of the South Carolina State Library (“Anything we can do to help you, let me know.”), Col. Gregory Kitchens (USMC), Jim’s amanuensis Maria (whose maiden name is Livingston, amazingly enough), the thriller writer James O. Born … and more. Many more. All of them kind. All of them flattering.
When at last I had a bit of space, I hustled out into the hall to retrieve one of the little keepsake cards that had been printed up to commemorate the event. I was worried that all of them had been snatched up while I was talking. Thankfully, some still remained. I picked one up, started tucking it into my pocket, and turned back towards the reception. There before me stood Harriet. She had been worried, it seems, that I was leaving.
Here, too, things become a blur. She apologized for putting me on the spot with her invitation to speak in April. We laughed about their uncertainty about whether I was worth it. She thanked me repeatedly. I thanked her. I tried not to cry. She was far, far stronger than I could ever imagine myself to be.
More introductions and receptions, this time with Harriet and me standing side by side. Things slowed down. Harriet again asked me to be there in April. “You will put it on your calendar, won’t you?”
I’ve remembered by now that I’m supposed to teach a graduate class that night, which meets once a week and —
“Harriet,” I said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
And I won’t.