Interview with Terry Brooks

August, 2010
Terry Brooks American writer Terry Brooks has spun epic fantasy tales for more than 30 years. His groundbreaking The Sword of Shannara became a runaway best-seller in 1977 and was the first title released by Del Rey Books, a now prolific publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Since that auspicious year, Brooks has written more than 20 novels in the Shannara universe, full of familiar elements such as elves, magical lore, and heroic quests but set on a futuristic Earth centuries after chemical and nuclear devastation. Bearers of the Black Staff, his newest tome, introduces a new generation of Shannara. Brooks reveals to Goodreads his vast strategy for writing thousands of years of history.

Goodreads: Bearers of the Black Staff begins 500 years after your previous work, The Gypsy Morph. What can readers expect in this new adventure?

Terry Brooks: It's part of the pre-history of the Shannara world. It takes place as a separate generational saga. Because it's 500 years in the future, we have a whole new group of characters—that's the way I like to work. In The Gypsy Morph, the survivors of the old world were walled away in a protected valley. Now these protections that were in place for those 500 years are coming apart, so they have to go back out into the world that was destroyed and discover what it's like out there. For me, the question was: If we destroy our world, have literally nothing left, and are reduced to a hunter-gatherer state, how do we get back to a place where we are civilized and able to function? I wanted to set up the ways in which we would respond to that kind of a situation and come back again.

GR: The Sword of Shannara was published in 1977. Would you have guessed then that you'd still be writing about that world in 2010?

TB: I think any first-time author, if they are at all like me (and I suspect most are), just want to get on the boards with something. So you write that first book, and you just pray that someone will pick it up and do something with it. Maybe it will find an audience. You're not thinking beyond that. I remember the first time that Judy-Lynn del Rey (my publisher) called me up and asked, "Are you working on the next book?" It occurred to me to say to her, "Well, of course I am." Now that was a flat-out lie—I hadn't even thought about it.

GR: The Shannara series spans 1,000 years, not counting an additional 1,000 years of pre-history [see timeline], and now includes more than 20 novels. How do you map out something so large?

TB: Well, the trouble with all this, of course, is that I wrote The Sword of Shannara first, and in there I committed myself to saying that the Shannara world was 1,000 years of the struggle in time after the destruction of the old world. So I'm locked into 1,000 years, like it or not. The only way to handle something like that is to break it down into a set of experiences that would happen to the people who survived the old world. It's impossible to think, frankly, even five books ahead, so I work in increments and work on them one at a time. Usually what happens is when I finish one set, it tells me where the next set needs to go and what needs to happen.

GR: Do you feel that a new reader could dip into the beginning of any of the sets?

TB: They are structured so you can come in at any point in a set of books and be fresh. Frankly, I can't believe the number of people who start in the middle of the set. It drives me berserk. But it was always my intention to write this whole thing in segments in order to allow a reader to pick up at any point and then go back or forward and not feel like they had missed out on something in the process.

GR: Goodreads member Alexandra J.W. would like to know, "Did you incorporate any specific hidden message or allegory...in your previous works? Or is it pure storytelling? "

TB: That's a good question. When I was starting out and had the advice and experience of Lester del Rey, who was my first editor and my mentor, his first rule about writing was that your first obligation to your readers was to tell a good story. If you didn't have that in there, then nothing else you did made any difference. So I always start by figuring out how to tell a story that will keep the readers turning the pages. If they only get that part of it and nothing else, that's fine. On the other hand, I'm usually writing about some kind of an issue. I use that as the fuel for my internal writer's fire for the year that it takes me to write a book. I usually find something that is going on in our own world that troubles me sufficiently that I need to write about it. The last [subject] I did in the High Druid series had to do with redemption. How far could you transgress in your behavior and still be forgiven? Or could you? With all of our public figures, somebody is always stepping over the line. How long do we forgive them? When do we say, "You've made restitution or you've become a better person." I wanted to explore how I really felt about that because it's sensitive.

GR: Goodreads member Gaijinmama says that The Sword of Shannara is recommended in the university class she is teaching on Science Fiction and Fantasy. She asks, "What was it like being the author of such a groundbreaking fantasy novel, the first on The New York Times best-seller list? How would you say its popularity influenced the development of the genre?"

TB: I should say, first of all, that when I wrote this, I was living in the cornfields of Illinois and had no direct contact with the publishing world. The Del Reys were quite stingy about giving me any information. They preferred you stay in your barrack and write. So I didn't really know a whole lot. Being on The New York Times best-seller list, I thought, "Oh, that's nice," but I thought it was something that happened to lots of people.

I didn't discover that it had the effect of jump-starting a whole set of books in the fantasy field until many years later. I discovered that Lester del Rey picked this book up because he was trying to prove a point that fantasy was getting short shrift outside of Tolkien. He felt that there was a huge market out there for it, and if he could find the right piece of writing, he could make a point that it could sell on the best-seller list at the same level as any other piece of fiction. That's what he intended to do, and that's what he did. It probably meant more to him than it did to me, although it has certainly provided me with a career.

GR: Goodreads member Ronda Tutt says, "I love his work, and if I had a chance to ask him anything it would be, Where does he come up with the names of his characters and [places]?"

TB: I keep a list. As I travel around the world I write down names that are interesting. Sometimes I get them off of street signs, maps, storefronts, and sometimes I take them from names I see when I'm at signings. I feel free to steal from everywhere. It's a process of fitting names to places, creatures, and people, but it makes it much easier if you have a whole bunch of names in place to choose from than if you had to sit down and suddenly think up 30 names.

GR: Goodreads member Saharial asks, "Are there any places in the world that you have visited whose landscapes have inspired Shannara, and have you found places that are like Shannara after having written about them?"

TB: The answer is yes. The geography is a character in the book. You're creating an imaginary world, so that becomes very important. Almost everywhere I go, I take away something of what I've seen that I can use in the books, and it will appear later on. I've been all over Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, and Canada. I lived for a long time on the big island of Hawaii, and if you read The Elf Queen of Shannara, the island of Morrowindl is the big island of Hawaii. It's not quite the same, but it's geographically the same.

GR: Several fans asked if there will be another book in the Magic Kingdom of Landover series.

TB: Well, I just finished one last year, so tell them to settle down. [laughs] I left the door open at the end for another book, and I have one in mind. I have to find time to write it, but that's probably not going to happen for a while.

GR: Similarly, many fans asked if there is progress on either a Shannara movie or a Magic Kingdom movie. Any news?

TB: The option on Magic Kingdom was dropped by Universal a couple months ago, and it's now under consideration by another group. I can't believe it frankly. I've made more money off that book by selling option rights than anyone has a right to. It keeps coming back to life, sort of like the undead. The Shannara series has been at Warner Brothers, but it's about to get dropped as well in about two weeks. When that happens, it's probably going to go somewhere else, but I can't talk about that right now.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing and any unusual writing habits.

TB: I get up at 6 a.m. pretty regularly and work until noon. Sometimes I will work in the afternoons, too, depending on whether I've gotten up a head of steam and want to keep going. I don't work every day. I work when I feel like it, but I also do a book a year and have to budget my time in order to keep to that schedule. My most unusual writing habit is that I'm sort of another version of Monk. I have to work in my space and never work anywhere other than my space. I have my stuff, and it's all where I want it to be. I don't like it disturbed. I'm not quite into lining up my pencils in a row, but I'm pretty close.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

TB: At different times in my life, different things were important. When I was in my middle-teens, the European adventure writers were hugely influential. William Faulkner's work was very influential in college when I was just beginning The Sword of Shannara and simultaneously writing my senior thesis on Faulkner in style and subject matter. Of course, The Lord of the Rings was a huge influence. Now I tend to read all kinds of things. I don't just read fantasy. Frequently nonfiction is a huge inspiration. The nonfiction world [can] suggest possibilities that I might be able to use in my fictional worlds.

GR: What are you reading now?

TB: I just finished The Passage by Justin Cronin, which I loved. I'm reading a James Lee Burke. I'll read Suzanne Collins's new book, Mockingjay, when it comes out next month. On my bedside table I have some Swedish mysteries I want to read. I have a Helen of Troy book by Ben Bova that I'm going to read. I'm like most people who are in the book world: I keep stacks of books around, get through them, and move on to other things. My whole house is filled with books. That's my life.

GR: What's next?

TB: I'm working on a book that's the first of a trilogy that takes place after High Druid of Shannara, which is in the future of the Shannara world. I'm doing something entirely new. It's centered around a search for all of the elfstones that are referred to repeatedly in the other books. They disappeared in the old world of fairy, and nobody knows what happened to them. In this series of books we are going to find out. People have asked about this for years, so I think there will be some pretty strong interest in the story line. Just the other day I was wishing I hadn't [already] used the title The Elfstones of Shannara, because it would be so much better if I could use it now!



Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Ronda (new)

Ronda  Tutt Please thank Terry Brooks for answering my question about the names of the characters and the towns. I have to say that Any producer who doesn't pick up the Shannara series is a fool because Kids are not the only ones who like Fantasy. They need to remember that Adults are just as big a clinitell and need to satisfy all audiances. They need to remember that the Adults are the ones spending their money on the movies and it would be wise to keep us happy.

Personally in my opinion, the Shannara series is 100 times better than the Harry Potter Series.


message 2: by Kay (last edited Aug 10, 2010 10:11PM) (new)

Kay Thank you so much for selecting and answering my question :) The Shannara world has always been so very real to me because of the wonderful landscapes and the places they travel through, to and across. I have always looked for Shannara places too and been reminded so often too when I travel.
I'm looking forward to the next series - I was always fascinated by the missing elfstones and now I will finally get to know more!!


message 3: by Alexandra (new)

Alexandra J.W. I'm very grateful that my question had been picked and answered by Terry Brooks. Thank you so much :D. Terry's work has been continuously awe-inspiring and felt really genuine. And yes, I kept turning the pages and always wanted to know what's next. The record would be 8 hours straight, I don't care if I have to get up early in the morning, I kept on going.

The Shannara series is a masterpiece and I feel very lucky to be able to know and enjoy Terry's works.


message 4: by Pepsie (new)

Pepsie In 1977 my soon to be husband gave me his copy of Sword of Shannara. Being a fantasy/sci-fi snob I was very skeptical, but the book opened up a world to me. I am an avid reader of all genres since then. Our four daughters have read the series as well. Terry Brooks is at the top of my list for favorite authors. Thank you Terry.


message 5: by Leslie (new)

Leslie i am an avid library user and never buy books, but i own many of those by terry brooks. i have loved his work forever and convinced the rockbridge regional library to buy them all. it wasn't too hard once i told them he went to washington and lee!

whether it was put there intentionally or not i read many layers of symbolism that keep me wanting to come back and read his works over and over again.

bravo!


message 6: by Alicia (new)

Alicia Excellent author choice for an interview. Thank you for picking someone in the fantasy genre.


message 7: by Linda (new)

Linda I tried over and over to get my son-in-law to read The Sword of Shannara. Finally in frustration, I left in on his bathroom sink, and now he's hooked...lol


message 8: by Chris (new)

Chris thanks for a nice interview. :)


message 9: by Richard (new)

Richard We met Mr. Brooks when we first moved to Sterling, IL in early 1976 and were assigned to him as a young lawyer in his law firm. At that time, his first book had not yet come out, but he talked about it with great enthusiasm.

It has been a thrill to see his success over the 30 plus years as we read his stories and think happily to the genuinely nice man that helped us get our legal affairs in order in a new place.


message 10: by Chris (new)

Chris LaHatte What has attracted me to Terry Brooks is that I think his writing has improved and I enjoyed the Genesis trilogy I think more than some of the earlier series. They reminded me of Ray Bradbury. It is rare for fantasy writers to keep up momentum, and many have kept writing when they should just retire. Terry Brooks is a fortunate exception.


message 11: by Pepsie (new)

Pepsie Chris wrote: "What has attracted me to Terry Brooks is that I think his writing has improved and I enjoyed the Genesis trilogy I think more than some of the earlier series. They reminded me of Ray Bradbury. It i..."

I agree. It is sad and frustrating when an author is unable to "keep it up" so the stories drag on.I agree with you that Terry is an exception.


message 12: by Suzanne (last edited Aug 20, 2010 07:42AM) (new)

Suzanne Tyrpak I was delighted to discover this interview with Terry Brooks this morning. I was privileged to study with him at the Maui Writers Retreat, and I continue to learn from him. He is truly a magical weaver of stories and a fine human being.

Thank you, Terry

DATING MY VIBRATOR DATING MY VIBRATOR (and other true fiction) by Suzanne Tyrpak


message 13: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Gardner I had the pleasure of meeting Terry Brooks at a book signing in Puyallup Wa. Thanks for asking all the questions I didn't have time for. Incidentally, He said it was supposed to be pronounced Shannara with the accent on the first syllable, but he said he's accepted the common pronunciation. Great interview!


message 14: by Chris (new)

Chris LaHatte Actually I should have also referred to the Word and the Void trilogy too, which I think have some of his best writing, which transcends the fantasy genre


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