With over 25 million books sold and 23 career New York Times bestsellers, Terry Brooks is easily one of the most successful fantasy authors of all time, and unquestionably a titan in the genre. He began writing his first book in law school, continuing through years as a trial attorney before publishing the now classic Sword of Shannara in 1977. ‘Sword was an instant success, becoming the first work of fiction to appear on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list. Terry went on to develop a global following with his epic tale of the 3,000-year history of the world of Shannara, his Magic Kingdom series and other works, gathering millions of fans along the way.
Now, forty-five years and 40 books and short stories in the world of Shannara later, he has decided to bring the series to a close with The Last Druid, hitting the shelves on October 20th, 2020.
I had the extraordinary opportunity to sit down (well, technically Zoom) with Terry, who graciously agreed to speak with me from his home in Seattle. I’m not easily awed, and I take pains to avoid the more virulent strains of gushy fanboydom, etc., but…I mean, come on: It’s Terry Brooks. I still have the copy of Elfstones of Shannara that I bought in 1983 with my lawn-mowing money.
Going into the interview, I was struck by how nervous I was. Interviewing a legend means acknowledging that you’re just Interview No. 3,478 or whatever, and I had a lurking anxiety about whether I could ask anything original. On the other hand, I was pretty sure that at worst, I’d bore him…and that if I overstepped any bounds, this was hardly Terry’s “first rodeo,” and he’d just tell me to go pound sand. And I’m okay with that. So, I turned on my computer a few minutes before the interview, got out my pen and pad, and strapped in.
As it happens, my concerns evaporated within moments. Terry was gracious, insightful, witty, wry, and an extraordinary conversationalist, and we proceeded to talk over the next hour about life, love, law school, comic books, and of course, writing—as well as why he’s decided to call it quits on Shannara after all these years.
When we began, Terry noticed that I was using my Taekwondo school’s Zoom link for the interview, and it turned out to be a great icebreaker—as it happens, one of Terry’s grandsons is into TKD, and he launched into talking about it like the proud grandfather he is.
That was a million miles away from my meticulously prepared outline and list of questions…which pretty much describes the rest of the hour, too…
* * * * *
Terry Brooks: …yeah, he entered competitions and all that sort of thing, and it was really fun because he’s small—he was always the smallest of whoever his opponents were, and some of them were huge, but he’s quick, which is worth a lot…but anyway, nice to meet you, Kas—glad to talk with you!
FOG!: As a matter of fact, quickness is a huge advantage—and it’s very much my pleasure to do this! Honestly, I couldn’t believe it when Forces of Geek asked me, so right out of the gate, let me thank you for your time! I imagine there’s a certain degree to which the publishers make you do this, so I’ll try to make it as painless as possible…
[Laughs] Nah, they don’t make me do anything—I’m old and mean…
Ha! I’ll give you the “mean” part, maybe…
Well, this is the Covid era of publicity, so everything I’m doing is just what we’re doing right here—no more touring, no more visiting bookstores, none of that is likely to happen for at least another year., if ever.
This topic has come up frequently in my real life—there’s a lot of genuine anxiety out there, etc., but my sense is that we’ve been behind the curve in using technology that’s been available for a while. Maybe it’s overstating the silver lining, but this is great—how else would I get the chance to do this with you?! I’ll take it!
That’s very kind.
Well, to start off here, I have a very organic style of doing this, so I thought I’d just start with a couple of overview comments, and first off: Do you prefer Mr. Books, or Terry?
Ah, call me Terry—only my father called me Mr. Brooks. [Laughs]
I say almost exactly the same thing, and actually, it relates to a point of connection that I learned about when I was preparing to meet you–as it happens, I’m a practicing attorney.
Oh my gosh! But you seem okay…!?
I know, right? I suspect it’s all the non-legal reading that I do.
Yes that probably explains it.
And when new clients ask me, “Are you ‘Mr. DeCarvalho,’ or just ‘Kas?’” my usual line is, “No, ‘Mr. DeCarvalho’ is my dad.” The other one is, “…only if I have to sue you.”
Well, just to give you a better read on me, I’ll tell you that I went to law school in the mid-60’s, and after my first year, I thought I was going to lose my mind. I hated it—just despised it—and I went home, and I said to my parents–who were funding it, by the way—that I hated it, wasn’t going back, etc. After much agonizing and discussion, they talked me into returning, so I did. But for the second year, I told myself that I was going to change everything, so I quit watching television, and I buckled down on my study habits (which obviously needed help), and that was all part of how I began writing The Sword of Shannara.
I couldn’t believe it, because not only was I getting my book written, but my grades were going up! I think I was at peace with myself…that inner solace came, and I was able to do better with both law school and writing because of that. Ever since then I’ve always said, “You know what got me through law school? Writing fantasy.” [Laughs]
This is already so far afield of where my interview outline was, but what you’re saying is really interesting, because I’ve been an avid reader—actually, I was going to show you this: [pulls out a dog-eared paperback of Elfstones of Shannara] I bought this book off the shelf when it was new.
Yeah, that’s back in the day, for sure—that’s the 1982 cover!
That’s about right! I would have guessed that 1983 is around when I bought it—it cements when I became one of your fans, I think I had only been back in America for a couple of years and…well, I’ll get to that in a minute, but the point is that I’m a voracious reader, and my issue in law school was that I preferred reading something entertaining, versus the Treatise on American Torts Law by J. Dustybutt Frankfurter, or whatever…so my law school experience was exactly the opposite of what you just described, because I had to stop reading so that I could actually do the work. If I let myself start a fun book, I was going to finish it before cracking the texts…
As a side note, I also happen to be a lifelong comic book fan, and I did let myself keep reading comic books in law school because you have a hard stop after 24 pages…
You know…we’re more alike than you know.
What do you mean? [Laughing]
I collected comic books, too!
Oh, I definitely collected comics. I was a voracious comic book reader, and I collected comics from Marvel—I collected all of them. I had all the sets, all the way—the first Spider Man, everything! And I stored them at the law office when I moved to Seattle to start my writing career, figuring they’d be safe enough with my partners and everything. Then I sort of forgot about them, but when I went back to get them some years later, they were gone!
Yep, I lost the whole thing, and I thought that maybe they had just gotten misplaced when the firm had moved their office at some point, but it turned out they later discovered that the bookkeeper had been embezzling…and that she had also apparently found my comic books, and had sold them off bit by bit to comic dealers around country. I lost the whole thing, and all I got was that she went to prison for a while…
I imagine you would have happily taken the comics, instead.
I know, and it was a great collection, too—it would have been worth a lot more than I got for restitution—well, I never got anything, actually. It’s just one of those weird stories that you hear, and I thought at the time that I would never get over it, but by the time they found her out and she was convicted, I had moved on. Anyway, it’s funny that we have that in common—we were both on that same parallel path. Maybe that’s the secret to success in both law and writing?
Well, I’m not going to make even the first claim to success in either of those…
…my legal career has turned out okay, I’ve been at it for a while now–but I’m not a published writer. I’ve glanced off it a couple of times, but never quite pulled it off.
That’s probably why you’re sane.
Well, I’m not sure I started sane, Terry, so I’m not so sure about that, either. Questionable, at best.
I have a whole backstory about my comic book collection, too…the short version is that I spent my childhood in Angola…
Oh, you’re from Angola!
I am. And one of my aunts here in America has four boys who are just a little older than I am, and when they’d occasionally send us a care package, my cousins had a whole scam worked out: My aunt would tell them pick out something easy to mail, and they figured out that they could get a comic book, my aunt would pay for it, and they could read it cover to cover before handing it over, “here you go mom, this is for cousin Kas…”
Hey, I was delighted…and anyway, over the course of my childhood, I collected a much loved, dog-eared little stack of comics. The thing is, my cousins had great taste! It was mostly early 1970’s Batman, Brave and the Bold, you know, DC stuff…but after the TV show, when it started getting dark and gritty again. We eventually moved back to the US, but I started collecting again in my late teens, and I just never stopped. Okay, I could rattle on for hours, but the readers don’t want to hear about me…
I’ll have to look you up, if I ever get up that way, and we’ll sit down and chat. You know, I think if I hadn’t gotten interrupted, I would have kept on collecting. I think I got through the 1970’s, and decided that was enough. I had had a ton…15 boxes of comics, all packaged in cellophane–but after that whole event, I decided I just needed to move on and just let it go.
That’s tragic, Terry. When I got married, I told my wife that my only two non-negotiables were comic books and Taekwondo…anything else was on the table, but those came with the package.
Yeah, we have a few of those rules around here, but it seems like my wife got a few more “rules” than I did…but it all worked out, so… [Laughs]
Same here. Well, Terry—I was just going to start out by telling you that by sheer coincidence, part of my COVID-19 SURVIVAL PLAN this Spring was going back to re-read my Shannara books! And I had forgotten this, but in revisiting the books back in March or April, I had this incredibly vivid recollection of when I read the books as kid…and first realized that you had wrapped a fantasy novel around a whole post-apocalyptic story—it was like the top of my head blew off!
[Laughs] I have to tell you, there were a lot of twists and turns between the origins and the ultimate end. When I started out writing Sword of Shannara, I didn’t have any plans past that one book, that was it.
From the beginning, though, I was going to put it in this unknown, post-apocalyptic world…it wasn’t going to be this world, it was going to be a mystery world. But right after it came out, people immediately started asking, “Where is this!?”
I said the same thing every time: “I’m not sure: What do you think?”
And I did that for the first three books, and never really moved outside of the parameters of what was apparent in the first book. But along the way, when I was working on ‘Heritage, I started getting lots of people not only asking where it was taking place, but about the prehistory, too! “We have to know about the prehistory!!”
So, I eventually broke down in the early 2000’s and set out to write the prehistory…and it all sort of went on from there. I thought, you know, it sounds like it would be America, the way things are going right now, so why don’t I just make it this country, because I have to set it in something that is recognizable, maybe as this country in the future. And that decision really dictated that whole aspect of the story, but none of it was in the initial concept, it only developed after around the 8th book or so.
You know, that’s the thing about writing: If you’re a writer, one of the lessons you learn is that you can only plan so far ahead before your brain explodes. You need to keep it fluid, and you need to remember that the creative process requires that you don’t lock everything in so that you know exactly what’s going to happen, or so that you’re required to follow this particular path or that particular road. You have to let it be organic, and the whole evolution of this 30-book series has been an organic process, where I left myself open to say, “Okay, I’m here now…so where would it go logically from here?” And that’s probably why it has lasted as long as it has.
Terry, it’s an extraordinary opus. And maybe it was by accident, but I think you left yourself some pretty good openings right from the beginning. I’m thinking about between the first two books, where you switched generations. I remember when I first read it, my immediate thought was, “Wait! What happened to the other characters?!” And then of course I was on to the next storyline…
That was a very conscious decision. The reason why I did that is that I’ve never understood mystery writers. I think mystery must be the most boring people in the world, just writing about the same characters over and over and over again. After I’ve written a book or two, I’ve had it with these characters for the most part, I’ve got to move on! [Laughs] So I decided the way to handle that is that if I was going to stay in the same world, I’d take on the next generation—and that way the world develops, magic takes on different aspects, social and economic, and so forth—you change everything around, and this makes it interesting all over again, it’s like you’re starting over every time. And that’s what I really loved about this series. It gave me a chance to cover 3,000 years without having to say every single thing that happened, and allowed me to have all these new characters come in every three or four books along the way. It kept it fresh and energizing. Otherwise, I think I would have burned out a long time ago.
Right! Well, and the readers probably, too…though I can think of a couple of examples which I won’t mention, but that are maybe the opposite model, and they seem to have done fine…it’s rare that I haven’t finished a series once I start something—I’m just wired that way. But occasionally, yeah, I do find myself thinking that it’s just a rehash…
I’ve had that problem reading some other things, too. Sometimes it seems like they’re not giving you anything new—they’re marching the army that way, then they’re marching the army back this way…and I just want to say, cut to the chase! A lesson I learned from Elmore Leonard years ago is that in writing, you cut everything that the readers are going to skip anyway. Particularly now, I’m more impatient than I used to be—this is what happens when you get older—so I don’t have time for people to mess around with me! If I get into a book and nothing happens, if somebody doesn’t die in the first chapter, I’m outta there! [Laughs]
That’s an exaggeration, but the fact is that for adventure stories—which is what I think I write, I call my books “adventure stories with fantasy trappings”—you have to move the story along! One chapter has to lead to the next, and every chapter has to have something that makes the reader want to go on. Otherwise, they lose interest, especially these days. When I started out, it was very different. Now, you get five seconds, or the reader is gone. Younger readers particularly, they don’t have time to waste on a weather description, or about somebody crossing over the bluffs, or whatever. They want to know what’s happening.
I’ve really changed my style of writing in that way. I know I’d better have something happen in that first chapter so that they don’t decide to move on to somebody else, where they’ll get that experience.
Terry, you skipped ahead of me…and I’m sensing a pattern here…but that was one of my questions: I was curious about the change in your writing style over the years…and I agree with you about the attention spans, by the way…
I just finished speaking to two writing classes—Wordsmiths, and Dave Wolverton’s writer group in Utah—and one of the things I stressed with them is this: One thing I know after 50 years of writing is that everything you do is going to change.
Everything you think you know about yourself, and about your writing…is going to change—because in 50 years, you won’t be the same person! And if you are the same person, then shame on you. The fact is, we evolve, we develop different interests. I tell people that my writing is usually based on something that I read in the newspapers that just pissed the hell out of me. I get mad after reading something, and when I do, I try to channel it into my writing as a subtext to the story. All of my environmentalism that appears in ‘Heritage, all the books about transgression and redemption that takes place in the later books…those were all things that were triggered by reading about something in the papers, where I thought, “this isn’t right, this isn’t how life works, you can’t just say that you get forgiven for everything,” nobody forgives everything! Forget it! I don’t care how Christian you are, or how Muslim you are, or how anything you are, your brain isn’t wired to say, “Oh, it’s okay…blessings be upon you…those children were not a big loss…”
Right, unless you’re a psychopath.
[Laughs] Yeah, unless you’re a psychopath! Anyway, I alwasy tell the students to remember to be really passionate about whatever you’re working on, don’t just do it because you’ve got a quota. That’s a good way to be put in the remainder pile in a hurry. I think they thought I was just an old crazy guy, but that’s okay…
I’m not so sure about that, Terry—but it leads into another question I had for you. I read some fascinating stuff about your early days of being edited by Lester del Rey—and I don’t need to rehash that, those interviews are already out there—but I was wondering: Do you still collaborate to that extent with your editors, or are they at a point where they’re like, “No, Terry knows what he’s doing, we’re going to leave him alone…”
No, I don’t believe in that, actually. I’ve been involved with four main editors in my forty-something years. Lester [del Rey] was my first—he was my mentor, and my teacher, and he was a tough, tough disciplinarian. His wife [Judy-Lynn del Rey] on the other hand, was my friend. Lester would do something, and it would just sent me into a deep decline, and then she would call up and say, “Brooks, how are you doing?” And I would say that I wasn’t too happy, feeling pretty bummed about whatever Lester had just said. And she’d say, “Brooks—she always called me that—remember we love you, and we care about you…and also remember that Lester is always right.” [Laughs]
And it’s true! He was!!
Ha! They did a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” on you!
Yeah, it was sort of like that, and I sort of knew it. But to your point, I’ve always felt like my editor was the first line of defense. Now my wife is my first line of defense, because she’s in the book business, and I rely on her to set me straight early on. But I’m working with Anne Groell right now [Editor’s Note: Anne Lesley Groell, Hugo-award winning long-form editor], before I worked with Betsy Mitchell [World Fantasy Award-winning editor and onetime Editor-in-Chief at Del Rey], and before her I worked with Owen Lock [then Editor-in-Chief at Del Rey]. The only one that’s still actively involved in the publishing community is Anne…but I rely on her. She also edits George Martin, and the first thing I told her when I went in was that I wasn’t going to play second fiddle to George.” And she said that George turns in a book maybe once every five years if she’s lucky, so I could have her undivided attention. [Laughs]
So I started working with her, and she sent over 25-30 page edits—and that’s a lot! I was thinking, “Oh my God, what did I sign up for,” but I actually really like it. Anyway, I don’t think that any author is good enough or all-seeing enough to be able to catch everything—we just aren’t. There are things there that [Anne] finds that I hadn’t even considered. And that’s always been true with my editors, and I’ve always very much appreciated the fact that they’re willing to engage. And they’ve also been my friends, I haven’t had an adversarial relationship with any of them! I’m not above calling any of them and saying, “Uh, listen, I’m flying out tonight and bringing my aunt with me, and we need to stay for a month, do you mind? Also, I need to borrow some money…” [Laughs] And they’ll of course say, “Oh, Terry, don’t be giving me that…” We joke with each other all the time. Anne just sent me a box of 1,400 tip-in pages for me to sign, and I wrote her back and said, “Anne, thanks so much for those pages, I have them sitting in the corner and I’ve decided to try telepathy–I’m going to have them sign themselves. And the moment that’s done, I’ll send ‘em right back to you!”
You’re hilarious. You should have told her they’ve been very useful as kindling…
So, the relationship with an editor is like a marriage—you’re not going to agree all the time, you’re going to bump heads some—but you also know that this is somebody who is going to stand up for you when you need it. And that’s been my experience, every time. When somebody tells me that their editor did this bad thing or the other, or doesn’t care about their side, I tell them they need to get another editor. It’s not a war, and everybody is working toward the same end, which is to sell a lot of books. Nobody is there to try to screw anybody else over because, what–they don’t want to make money?! That’s not going to happen.
That makes a lot of sense. It’s funny that you mentioned George Martin. About ten or so years ago, he actually took me up on my invitation to get together the next time he came East, and we had a lot of fun! Funny coincidence, it led to me helping edit a comic book adaptation of one of his books, which was kind of fun.
Cool! He’s a good guy.
Okay, let me switch gears here–you said something interesting in an article I read, where you found it frustrating to explain your work to people who aren’t fantasy fans—you mentioned the random discussion on an airplane when someone asks you what you do, and you fall down this rabbit hole… I won’t make you relive that prior interview either, but I was wondering: Have you ever identified any particular characteristics that separate fantasy readers from…uh, “muggles,” you know, normal people?
That’s a good way of putting it! I do…and it’s one of the reasons why I like this field. I hear this all the time but, Judine [Terry’s wife of 32 years] is the one who told me that I have the world’s best fans. They’re kind, generous, helpful people, they’re a community, they stand up for each other, they stand up for me, they’re polite…I’ve never had a bad signing incident, never–it just doesn’t happen! And I think that part of it is that a lot of my readers—fantasy fans—feel marginalized. I grew up as one of these kids, and this isn’t exactly a mainstream kind of thing, and other kids don’t think you’re necessarily a sane person, because you’re doing all of that stuff with comics, and with toy figures, and with collections, and things like that…they think you’re a geek. I was geeky, dweeby kid—and I’m only 5’6”, and for years, I was a 4-eyes like you until I got contacts… [Laughs]
But you know, all of those pejoratives that kids like to use on other kids, I knew all about that, and I got beat up a lot, too.
The point is that I go to these conventions, and the thing that gets me is that no matter big or small the convention, the community is just so cohesive. They’re kind to each other. Nobody is ever, ever excluded. Nobody is made fun of because they weigh 50 lbs. or 300 lbs., or because they look like Lurch or something, and nobody is mistreated in any way. And to me, that’s rare. There’s no premium put being cool or anything like that…and I think I’d rather have those people as my readers, and the people who read my books, reading fantasy, and probably horror as well…a lot of them are those people. They started out that way, and they grew up to be whatever they grew up to be, but you never entirely outgrow your roots, so I think there’s a large amount of that present in the readership.
I agree with you, Terry. It’s a lovely community, and you have amazing fans. Although as an interesting side point here—and I’m a lawyer, so you know, I’m contentious—
Right, go for it… [Laughs]
Well, in my opinion, something happened ten or fifteen years ago where suddenly, being a geek became cool. And all of a sudden, all of that stuff that I used to get picked on and beat up about, now it was hip…and I’m a bit cranky about it. That’s not really a question, just an observation…
[Laughs] I see what you’re saying, and I think you’re right—things have changed in recent years. There seems to be an empathy in schools I’m familiar with out here that wasn’t there when we were growing up, it was just dog eat dog in those days. But here, my elementary grade teacher daughter tells me stories about how these kids look after each other. And that would never have happened, in my day—you were on your own!
Yeah, it was “Lord of the Flies.”
My daughter has kids that are mixed race, and transgender , she has kids who don’t speak English and have to learn from the other students, children who are from Eastern Europe, children whose home lives are a mess…and she says they get in that classroom and they bond. They get together, and they’re all looking out for each other. And I kind of think that’s what happens with us geeks.
What an interesting analogy. I think I agree with you. I’ve got two teenagers, and similarly, they’re surrounded by a group of friends, and I don’t know, I just really enjoy the diversity of it. You mention, like, a transgender kid…that just wasn’t an option when I was growing up.
And when I grew up, people couldn’t be gay, either–not in in “Whitebread, Illinois.” People made comments about it, but I never really got what they were talking about anyway. There were never openly gay people—well, that word wasn’t even used back then, the word was “queer”–just the unacceptance of it, you know, all the racist jokes about “the Poles, ” and “the blacks” and everybody else, those jokes were all prevalent, all the time, even in my own family.
It was the norm.
Exactly, it was the norm. But it grated on me, even then—maybe because I was the kid who felt like an outsider and excluded, and that’s exactly what they were doing to those groups. And I just felt that was not the way you were supposed to be, nobody should be excluded like that. And maybe I drifted to fantasy, and reading the kinds of stories where everybody is strange. Aliens, all kinds of varied creatures, different things, and in the books that I really loved, those were some of the main characters, you know? Asimov! Robots!! Robots were main characters! And in science fiction, robots were really interesting because of their differentness, and despite human characteristics! It’s interesting to see where we are now, but I basically find myself liking kids more than I like adults.
That’s an interesting statement, what do you mean?
You know, every time I read all the political stuff in the papers these days, I just want to put it all in a big quarry and gravel it over. It just frosts me to no end. I don’t know, we’ll see. I just finished a new book that I think is going to touch on some of this…it’s about [Editor’s Note: I promised Terry I wouldn’t talk about this]…
…anyway, I’m in that place right now as I wait for Trump to get voted out of office…I don’t understand who all these people are out there who still think he’s a good idea. I’m trying to remain optimistic…maybe it’s just me.
As a side effect of working with clients around the country, I’m frequently reminded that where I live in New England is something of a liberal bubble, and I appreciate it, it suits me…but I also recognize that there are parts of of the country out there that are just drinking a different Kool-Aid, Terry. I guess they’re entitled to their opinions, too.
Okay, I have to get back on track, here. So, I have to ask the expected question, and here it is: Terry, 25 years and 40 books and short stories later, you’ve written The Last Druid as the end of the Shannara saga. Why now? Why have you finally decided to call it quits?
Well, this is something that has been under consideration for a while, as you might guess. I started the series in ‘68, and here we are, your know, 50 years later. Wen I started it, I didn’t have any thought or intention of getting this far, and I have enjoyed it, I’ve had a wonderful time with it, and I always felt like I was contributing books that were worthy of the effort, you know? Particularly through the 1990’s, my readers were, “Oh, you wrote Magic Kingdom! Well, that’s nice…but when’s the next Shannara book?” And, “Oh, you wrote Word and Void…oh, that’s okay, but about that next Shannara…” So I responded by always going back to it. I’d write other things like Star Wars and stuff, just to give myself something different to do, exercising different creative muscles…but I always went back. Well, as we got closer to the end, I think around 2007 when stock market crashed, I just sort of thought…it’s probably time to think about how long I want to go with this. And we had a couple of writers die, too—you know, like Robert Jordan, without getting to the end of his books…
Well, Jordan famously said that he was going to write until the end, and he was basically unapologetic about it. I have to say, I respected that…
He did, and I respect that too, but I was afraid that I would write to the very end…but fall one or two books short. And I had an ending that I did not want to leave to somebody else to do! And I guess the timing just seemed right. I’m ready to go off in some other directions, it’s gone on long enough, and it’s time to put Shannara to bed. I can always come back to it easily enough if I choose to, I can fill in some gaps that I left along the way, or I can just do short fiction…but I decided that I needed to let go. I have maybe, maybe 15 good years left of writing, if I’m lucky enough that I don’t get dementia or whatever, so I have to use that time in the best way that I can, and I want to do some new stuff! That’s where I’m focused, and that was why I did it–and I decided that I was going to write the ending.
[Laughing] I told Sanderson [Brandon Sanderson authored the end of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series], “I’m sorry to tell you this—but I’m writing the end of my series…”
[Laughing] Don’t even think about it, Sanderson!
And Brandon did a great job with that, for sure—but I felt like I had to be the one to end Shannara. So I did. I wrote it, and now it’s done…and I’m free. And I did think about it for a long time, and at some point around when I hit 70, my energy level took a major nose dive, and my focus ability changed, and I had to change when I write. Now I write in the morning, at 5:00 a.m. until noon. That’s when I do my work, because I discovered that after lunch, I’m basically brain-dead—I just want to read, or watch or movie or something. I’m supposed to be retired!! What happened to retirement at 65?! [Laughing]
Anyway, I decided that if I’m going to make another 15 years out of this, I have to pace myself a little bit, and also I have to get going on a lot of other things I still want to do.
You’ve skipped ahead to another one of my questions—I might as well shred this outline–I was going to ask you about your writing process. I need to specify where this thought originated: I’m not a huge horror fan, but I have a lot of respect for Steven King’s writing, particularly given what he’s lived though, and in his semi-autobiographical “On Writing,” he talks about being disgruntled that nobody ever asks popular fiction writers about the mechanics of the language, the linguistics, the craft of writing. I was thinking about that when I was getting ready for this interview—and I suspect that horror and fantasy are sort of in the same boat, “popular fiction”—so I wanted to ask you that question, or in the alternative, whether you have any similar disgruntlements about things that people don’t ask you about, but should?
Well, I think it’s a given that if you’re writing in genre fiction, you’re not going to win any awards. Well, [Stephen] King won some awards, so he’s ahead of the game… and I’ve won some lifetime achievement awards and stuff like that, but I don’t care about any of that. What I care about is selling books, pure and simple. I’ve said that my goal in life was to be read by every man, woman and child in America. That’s all, that’d be fine. And I haven’t quite succeeded, but I’m working on it.
[Laughing] Got it! You should probably add that they have to buy the book…
Yeah, good idea. You know, I read “On Writing” too, and I have to tell you that King and I agree on very little in terms of craft, which is interesting.
I can’t wait to hear this.
[Laughing] Not that I don’t respect what he does, but it points out how many different ways there are to skin this particular cat! You could try to tell me, “You have to do this and, you have to do that,” and I’d say, “Well…no, you don’t.” What you have to do is whatever works for you. That’s it, it’s not what works for another writer—they’re off on their own trip, if they’re doing something, you don’t have to do it the way they’re doing it. And the longer you’re in this game, the more you become aware of the fact that there are all these different paths. Every writer I know has a pretty good story about how they got published, about what it took to get there, where they are today, and why…and they’re all different. And that’s what makes every writer unique and interesting! King is very dogmatic about his writing–he writes every single day. What I think about that is, “Oh, just shoot me now!!” [Laughing]
I’m never going to be that person, I’m not going to write every day…but I do know that if you quit writing for any length of time, you’re going to have trouble getting back into it, or it’s going to take a little while, because if you move it away from it—well, it’s a craft like any other, it’s like laying bricks, and if you don’t lay bricks for a while, you’re not just going to jump back in and remember how to do everything.
The way to say sharp is to write often and frequently. I probably write five days a week on average, something like that, and when I write, I don’t have any rules except that the book has got to be in by the time it’s due. It doesn’t matter how I do it, that’s up to me. I don’t have to do five pages every time I sit down. I have another close writer friend who writes mysteries, and her rule is that she has to write three pages every single day. It doesn’t matter if she’s dying, it doesn’t matter if the dog died, it doesn’t matter if her husband left her or whatever, only that she has to write three pages. And that appalls me! I mean, what happens if I didn’t do my three pages? Is the world going to end!? No! I don’t think so!
For me, it’s just a case of having to write at your own pace. I think Steven King has really good insights on this, and he’s a true craftsman—but the thing that I think he’s overlooking, and that we touched on earlier, is that it’s very difficult to be celebrated as a craftsman of good language in this industry when the focus is on the stories. People read Stephen King for the stories, they don’t read him for his writing!
That’s probably true, for the most part.
And that’s also true for most genre fiction writers—the fact is, you can’t have it all. And while he may be a really great writer, stylistically speaking—which I think he is, he’s very good at what he does, and there are others, like David Silverberg, John Connolly…but the point is that even though they may appreciate the craft, this is not why people read the books! They read them because the stories are so compelling.
I sold my soul to the Devil years ago, I just said that I want people to read these stories, and I want them to be moved by them. I want them to come away feeling like they didn’t waste 30 bucks or whatever, I want them to feel something at the end of the book, I want them to have some kind of emotional reaction to the book that they just read. And if you do that successfully as a writer, I think that’s about as much as you can ask.
That makes perfect sense. Though I’ve got a couple of writers I could mention, I suppose George Martin would be one of them, where I’m so grateful for what they’ve put into the world, but I do wish they’d finish the next damned book. Mind you, I’d never say that to them…
We’ve had a lot of writers who have had problems with that. George is so popular with that TV show that he’s kind of bullet-proof on this…but David Eddings had this problem years and years ago when he was in the middle of a series, then left it and went over to do another series, and he left the first one hanging. It just pissed the living daylights out of his readers, they just hated it,* and you do have to be aware of the fact that once you start something, the expectations are there. Your readers have certain expectations, they expect to see a book every year. *[Note: Eddings began writing and published two books in the Elenium series before returning to finish his earlier Malloreon series. That “gap” in the Malloreon was between Sorceress of Darshiva (1989) and Seeress of Kell (1991), which hardly seems worth complaining about…]
Absolutely. Right or wrong, fair or not…the fans will have their say.
Yeah, it’s true! But I also think that they expect you to keep the quality of your work up, so you can’t be cutting corners. You have to give them what they paid their money for, and what they’ve been expecting and waiting for all those months or whatever…but the cardinal rule is NEVER disappoint your readers. If they don’t like the story, there’s not much you can do about it, but you have to do everything in your power to make sure they do like it.
But that’s the Scylla and Charybdis of it though, right? The readers want a book on schedule, but as you correctly point out, they don’t want you to just mail it in! I’m thinking about Patrick Rothfuss, I don’t know if you know or have read his stuff…
Yeah, he’s great, I know Pat…
He seems like a fascinating guy—I don’t know him, but I really like his work…and to the point, I am absolutely not going to be that guy, screaming “Where’s the next book?!” That’s just not how I roll. And I hate it for him, because it seems like people are torturing him, and that’s not right. But anyway…
That’s what happened with George, too! He’s been under siege forever by his readers, they’re very unhappy with the fact that he went off and did the TV show and left the books unfinished—and I don’t know that you can put those expectations on a writer: You can be disappointed, but you can’t then write nasty letters about what they’re going to do…
It’s funny you mention that. I sent George a letter after maybe the second book in his series, and I told him that I couldn’t care less when the next book came out…just not to get hit by a bus. And he wrote me back, too. He said, “Thanks Kas…but what is this bus people keep warning me about!?”
So…I have to ask at least one question just for myself. I may or may not include this in the interview, but I have to know: What was it like to make the decision to hang up your legal spurs to go be a full-time writer?
That’s a good story. At the time…well, I was writing Sword of Shannara for seven years. I started it when I was in law school, and then I wrote it through the first four years of legal practice. Then, by the time I heard back from Del Rey, it had actually been about ten years since I had first started it. And they told me that they really liked the book, and I knew that was good…but I also know that it was just one book, and that if I was going to have a career, there has to be more than that. But that’s what I wanted. I had wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old, and no real idea of how to get there–but I decided this was finally my opportunity—so don’t blow it. Anyway, after ‘Sword sold a few million copies, I talked to my editor and told him, “Well, now I think it’s time I retired from the law.”
And he said, “No it isn’t.”
Wait, this was Lester Del Rey?
Yeah. I explained to him that if I quit being a lawyer, I could spend more time writing, and he said, “No, I’ll tell you when you can quit.” That wasn’t good enough for me, and I asked when that would be, and he said, “When it’s time.” And I said, “No, no—you’re not doing that, you need to tell me right now what the goals are and what do I have to do!”
[Laughing] The lawyer in you, right?
Exactly. And he told me that I had to write two more bestsellers—oh and by the way, he had just rejected the next book I had sent them—and he said that I also had to have a years’ worth of income in the bank.
Wait, I read about that! He didn’t just reject your second submission, he told you to burn it!
[Laughing.] Yes he did! Well, I didn’t burn it, actually—I cannibalized it for the next book…but yeah, that’s what he said. So that was my plan, and I finished all three Shannara books in the first trilogy, and then finished Magic Kingdom For Sale.
And…well, by that time, I was in an unhappy marriage, and I was considering how I was going to continue with this, and in the process of traveling around the country on tour for Magic Kingdom–which is about a lawyer who is unhappy with his life, and he buys a magic kingdom out of Christmas catalogue…I’d written out my own story, for God’s sake!! Anyway, I met Judine on tour, she was a Book Manager at Waldenbooks…and it was one of those things where you walk through the door and see somebody, and you’re like, Holy Smokes—This is IT!!
So, I invited the whole staff out to dinner after one of the Waldenbooks book openings, which I’d usually do after these things—cash flowed freely back in those days—and everybody turned me down except for her. So we went out to dinner, and I proposed to her. [Laughing] No, I didn’t…but that was the beginning of our friendship. And that is what also led directly to my decision to change my life, quit my lawyer job, move to the Pacific Northwest, and be a full-time writer. I did everything that Lester told me I was supposed to do except for the years’ worth of money in the bank. I should have probably done it sooner, but it took something for me to get there, and Judine was it, she was the one. I felt like I had finally found my soul mate, this was my tethered spirit. So, now she goes with me on tour, and she’s just as popular with the readers as I am. She’ll probably write the books when I’m gone. [Laughing]
I think I had probably felt that the time was coming for a while, and I had been slowly marginalizing the legal practice, pushing it to one side because I was really into writing at that point, and there’s only so many hours in the day. I was a partner at the law firm by then, but I had cut my practice back, and I was only doing certain kinds of work, etc. So, I just went in one morning and sat down at the morning meeting, and said, “Guys, I’m quitting, I’m outta here. I’m done, my legal career is over.”
And they said somewhat supportive things like, “Well, you’re going to keep your legal license up, aren’t you?” and “You can always come back, if you want…”
[Laughing] “Yeah, thanks for that vote of confidence, guys!”
I took a strong position about it, told them I wasn’t coming back. And it all worked out, I got Magic Kingdom out, then got a contract for another four books, and yeah, it was clear that I should have probably gone earlier. In any event, truly lucky am I to have found something that I love to do.
Wow. Well, that luck has flowed to every one of your readers, Terry. I read something that you said about people having asked you why you didn’t write legal thrillers or something, and I don’t know…I’ve read Grisham, and he spins a good tale, but I’m one of millions of people who can affirmatively say that we’re so glad you didn’t do that. I don’t know if anybody has actually said that to you, but I am happy to represent all millions of them…
[Laughing] I wouldn’t have been any good at that. And I’ve heard that before, actually! But I think that if you’re lucky enough to find something that feels natural to you in your writing, where you just feel like these books are where you want to live your live… Look, as a writer, you are in your head all the time, working on your book, you’re never away from it. You get ideas, you think about things that need to be changed… I never go anywhere without a pad and pen, and thinking about something that I need to write down for later…you just can’t control it. And it’s not like you can just sit down over half an hour and come up with a whole thing that you’re going to write a book about—that’s impossible.
I think you have stay open about that sort of thing, because the creative part can be hard…but it’s easier if you can just let it come. Patience! That’s what I’m always telling would-be writers. Patience is so crucial! Give yourself the space you need to think of the things that are going to make a difference. If you’re having trouble, back away–you can’t force it. Go to the zoo!! Take your kids somewhere, go say hi to your mother who doesn’t know who you are anymore because you’ve been buried in your typewriter. [Laughing]
When I was teaching writing classes, I would say that what writer’s block is either when you’ve made a wrong turn in your storyline and you need to rethink where things started to go wrong and work around it in a different way…or it means you’ve been up there for so long that you need to go down and reintroduce yourself to your children.
Okay, I’m starting to wrap up here…so for obvious reasons, we’re sort of focusing here on the Shannara stuff, but I want to give due shrift to your other work, the Landover novels and everything else…but my question is this: Do you have a single book that stands out to you as being your best work? And that sounds like a canned question, but I was legitimately curious…
The question I usually get is, “What is your favorite book?” And that’s like asking me to choose between my children, and I can’t do it. But you’re asking me what book I’m most proud of, and within the Shannara series, I’m extremely proud of ‘Elfstones. It was my seminal book. That was the book that told me that I could write. In the first one, [Sword of Shannara] I just got lucky, and I got through it, and I really have no idea how. The second one, Lester made me rewrite two or three hundred pages, two or three different times—it was a major effort, but it was a good book, and people loved it, and I was very happy with it.
But probably the best thing I ever wrote was Running With the Demon (Del Rey, 1997). Stylistically, the way I feel the story worked and how it turned out at the end, and my connection with it—that was the one. It’s not the fans’ favorite, but they’re entitled to choose what they want.
Well, the fans’ favorite isn’t what I was curious about—I mean, they do have favorites, and that’s fine, but I was just curious about yours in particular. I’m about to butt up against our hour, and I want to be sensitive to your time, but I need to at least mention this…is there anything that you want the readers to know about The Last Druid before it hits the shelves?
Well, I should probably mention that it comes out on the 20th of October, you can get all that information online at Del Rey or on my website, TerryBrooks.net.
There are some events you can sign up for, and get tickets, including a signed book and stuff. I’m also doing a collection of short stories, called Small Magic, that comes out in early March, and is a collection of stories I’ve written over the years, but also a bunch of news ones, including in the worlds of Shannara and ‘Kingdom, and a novella from Word and Void, so I’m excited about that–it’s a big book, about 500 pages! Then the next book, which is a new book that I can’t talk about even though I did a little bit earlier [and which the interviewer redacted, as promised], that book will come out next June, and I have to tell you—because it’s true—the publisher is really excited about it, and they haven’t been this hugely excited in a while, so I’m taking that as a good thing. I could have done something as a follow-up to the Shannara series, but this is totally new. It’s a real fantasy epic fantasy kind of story, and on a different level, so I think the readers should really love it, at least I hope so! I’m proud of it, I think it’s a really good story.
You did mention the new one a few minutes ago, so if I shouldn’t tell anyone about it, just let me know.
Maybe just leave out the parts about the storyline…
Done. You can owe me five cents, and we’ll call it attorney/client privilege.
Good idea! And this has been fun! Contact me on the next book and we’ll do it again!!
* * * * *
And that was it. Terry logged off, and I looked at the smoking, eviscerated carcass of what had once been a painstakingly organized outline…and I’m perfectly fine with that.
Kas DeCarvalho is an attorney, comic book collector and would-be writer.
He lives in New England with his wife, their two children and two ridiculously goofy dogs.