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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author Terry Brooks On The 35th Anniversary Of Shannara

Born in Illinois in 1944, Terry Brooks spent a great deal of his childhood and early adulthood dreaming up stories in and around Sinnissippi Park. That would eventually become the setting for his bestselling Word & Void trilogy. He received his undergraduate degree from Hamilton College, where he majored in English Literature, and went on to earn his graduate degree from the School of Law at Washington & Lee University. A writer since high school, he wrote many stories within the genres of science fiction, western, and fiction but was unable to finish any project, until the fateful  semester when he read Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. That moment changed Terry’s life forever.

During the next seven years he wrote The Sword of Shannara and then sold it to Lester del Rey. During spare time from his law practice, Terry wrote The Elfstones of Shannara(1982) andThe Wishsong of Shannara (1985)Then quit his law practice and wrote Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold!, a new bestselling new series for him. Other series include The Heritage of Shannara,  two more Landover books,  the Word & Void trilogy, and, at George Lucas’ request, the novelization for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He also wrote a memoir/writing book titled Sometimes The Magic Works.

Terry lives with his wife Judine in the Pacific Northwest and on the road meeting his fans but can be found online at

SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with where your interest in science fiction and fantasy came from and who were some of the authors who influenced you?

Terry Brooks: Aside from Alice and the Oz books, I didn’t read any fantasy for a long time.  I was a 40s and 50s kid, and boys then all read science fiction.  By the time I reached high school, I had read just about everything that was out published prior to 1960.  I pretty much grew up on the old masters – too many to name here.  But then I switched over to the European adventure storywriters – Dumas, Walter Scott, Stevenson, and Conan Doyle.  I read Fennimore Cooper and all of Burroughs and Wells.  When I sent Sword Of Shannara off to Ballantine Books in the mid-1970s and Lester del Rey answered back, he took the trouble to tell me who he was.  I thought that was pretty funny.  I knew right away who he was.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing in school? Where’d you learn craft and how’d you go about developing your skills?

TB: There wasn’t much offered in the way of fiction writing when I was in college.  Most classes were centered on expository writing, and they were deadly dull.  I wrote from the age of ten, and most of what I learned was by writing fiction stories for various teachers as assignments and for my own pleasure.  I was pretty raw before I fell into Lester’s hands.  He whipped me into shape over the course of my first four books.  I never knew it was possible to rewrite so much prose and not go insane.  But I learned how to be a professional in the process.  I don’t know that young writers get that chance these days.

SFFWRTCHT:  From your bio, it seems you spent much of high school and beyond writing but never completed anything until reading Tolkien inspired the Shannara books. Did you start with novels or short stories? Were any of them set in worlds similar to the Shannara books?

TB: I wrote some short stories and some even shorter novels.  What would happen is I would get started on something and then lose interest after the first 30 pages or so.  I finished a bunch of short stories, but they were all terrible.  I was still learning how to write.  Funny thing is, I never wrote fantasy until after I read The Lord Of The Rings in my early 20s and 3 years later started writing Sword of Shannara.  I wrote everything else you might imagine, including some really dreadful coming of age stories, but no fantasy.  I did write a 400 page space opera in high school.  But by the time I started Sword, I was not only heavily under the influence of Tolkien but also of those European adventure storywriters I mentioned above and William Faulkner, about whom I wrote my senior thesis in college.

SFFWRTCHT: The Sword Of Shannara took seven years to write and then became a best seller and spent 5 months on the New York Times’ Bestseller List. What is it about the books that you think connected with people? The newness of epic fantasy? Core themes?

TB: How about the fantastic writing?  How about the deathless prose?  Okay, seriously.  I think it was the storytelling.  I hear that a lot, even now, after I’ve moved quite a distance from that time and become a much better writer.  Sword was a first novel, and I was writing it mostly for myself, trying to tell the kind of story I thought anyone who read it would love.  I had no particular expectations of being published or agenda to meet.  I just wanted to write a book that felt satisfying to me.  It got a lot harder after I began to understand what was needed to write good commercial fiction and the expectations of the readers became a very heavy weight to bear.  I think about that now with new writers like Christopher Paolini and Patrick Rothfuss.  In some ways, that first book is much easier to write than the few that come immediately after.

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the initial idea for The Sword Of Shannara come from?

TB: Well, you’ve got the literary influences listed above.  To break it down a bit, I was using the format of an imaginary world like Tolkien’s in which magic was real and the characters were young men like myself, caught up in a dangerous situation and just trying to do the right thing; a setting like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County expanded into a much larger world, but still envisioning an historical saga with families readers would follow over time whose members were dysfunctional and impacted by their heritage; and a storyline that would be gripping and compelling in the way that the stories of the books by adventure writers I had admired were – no appendices, no footnotes, no nothing, you just had to keep reading.

SFFWRTCHT: How much of your Shannara books and the Word/Void series did you have in your head before you wrote them? Did you plan out everything before you wrote it all, or did the ideas come to you as you worked on each book individually?

TB: It varied.  I had Word/Void down cold before I wrote those books.  Sword was more fluid, much of it coming to life during rewrites.  I rewrote that book three times before I sent it in – once from scratch.  That said, you always keep an open mind because you will get new ideas and a fresh perspective when you do the actual writing.  Nothing ever gets completely settled in the outlining stage.

SFFWRTCHT: There are some people who say Shannara is a little too much like LOTR. And it’s true they share similarities. But I’ve always been drawn to the differences. For example, I loved the emphasis on family relationships that permeate several of the Shannara books. What would you say influenced you to emphasize family in your books? And how does that element make your plotting easier/harder/both?

TB: Really?  People say Sword is like Lord of the Rings?  Well, I never!  Seriously, I’ve already said Tolkien heavily influenced me in writing Sword, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing per se.  A lot of the fussing back when was about writing in the Tolkien model, and look how many writers do that now!  After all, epic fantasy wasn’t supposed to end with Tolkien.  It was supposed to build his work.  You point out my emphasis on family relationships and that comes from my fascination with Faulkner.  But no one grips that I am stealing his ideas.  I think writing is distinguished by voice and concept, and my approach is pretty much peculiar to me.  I do emphasize family relationships because I believe connection with characters is what draws readers in and keeps them interested in the story.  Besides, epic fantasy is about men and women facing epic challenges that call on them to be more than they thought they could be.  How they overcome their weaknesses and rise to the occasion is the heart of the story.

SFFWRTCHT: That’s one of the better definitions of epic fantasy I’ve heard in these interviews. Thanks. Obviously from reading your work, it’s clear that concepts like the power of truth and the power of words are important to you and in your stories? I can’t help noting that seems to connect to Christian teaching, but it certainly could have arisen from other ideas and experiences too. Talk about where your passion for words/truth comes from.

TB: Whoa!  Do I know the answer to that?  Maybe, maybe not.  I was raised Christian, so I’ve spent years studying concepts that come from the Bible and connected writings.  I am a big believer in people doing the right thing, especially when it comes to helping others.  But the themes of good and evil, of hard choices made under trying circumstances – sometimes with no good choices being offered, of sacrificing for the greater good, and of accepting responsibility in situations where maybe you can make a difference are all heavily integrated in my work.  I think much of that comes from how I’ve come to see the world and how I try to live my own life.

SFFWRTCHT: The Sword Of Shannara is set in a world recovering from years of war that brought it to ruin. Then the supposedly dead Warlock Lord rises again with a plan to destroy everything in his wake. The world’s only hope is the powerful Sword of Shannara which can destroy him but can only be wielded by a true son of Shannara, so half-elfin Shea Ohmsford, the last of the line, finds himself drawn on a quest to find the sword and defeat the Warlock. Tell us a bit about how you developed the idea for and character of Shea Ohmsford please.

TB: Shea is Everyman.  He’s just a regular guy who suddenly discovers that through no fault of his own, he’s the one person who can change the fate of an entire world.  He has to decide if he wants any part of this or if it’s just too much for him to take on.  On a smaller scale, we all face situations like this every day of our lives.  We are beset by difficulties that we have to stand up to and problems we have to resolve.  Shea is you and I and everyone – all of us doing the best we can in tough situations.

SFFWRTCHT: One of my favorite elements of The Sword of Shannara is that Shea’s brother Flick seems so “useless” to the rest of the group until he proves himself to be clever in coming up with a way across the chasm where the bridge had been cut. And he’s heroic in saving the elf king too. And then there’s Menion, who seems a bit of a rogue and a dandy, but proves very heroic too, when it counts. How do characters like that play into your approach to story-crafting? And if you were forced to do it, how would you define what makes a hero a “hero?”

TB: I struggle with use of the word ‘hero.’  It gets tossed around pretty freely, and I think that’s a mistake.  For me, heroes are people who accomplish great things under difficult circumstances, often in life-threatening situations, by becoming more than they thought they could be and by banishing fear and doubt because there is an element of doing the right thing involved.

SFFWRTCHT: I share your definition of hero and I don’t think it’s so common today. Many fantasy writers today write much more antiheroes and amoral worlds, but Shannara has some pretty clear heroes and antagonists. Would you write any of that differently today than you did then? How do you think it might change the story?

TB: I don’t much like a lot of what is being written these days.  I think it is way too dark and nihilistic.  I am a positive sort of guy.  I don’t get off on graphic sex and a lot of four letter words.  I don’t like it when everyone dies at the end.  I hate it when there is nothing positive and hopeful in a book.  I know it sells, and I don’t fault people who write it, but it is not for me.  I will always write the same kind of story.  People struggle, they persevere, there is a cost to their efforts, but in the end things work out.  That’s just who I am.

SFFWRTCHT: After three successful books, you retired from your law practice to write full time. What was the hardest part about switching from the practice of law to the practice of writing? And don’t say a steady paycheck! What else was hard for you about that switch?

TB: I kind of like your answer.  But I should point out that I published 4 bestselling books before I quit practicing law.  I had been writing for years even before I started law.  I had always wanted to be a writer; I just didn’t know how to get there.  Once I published Sword, I was afraid to quit.  What if all that free time blocked me up?  I was used to writing nights and weekends.  But I just reached a point where enough was enough.  Lester used to tell me I needed three books under my belt and a year’s salary in the bank.  I didn’t listen to the part about the money, but it worked out anyway,

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve also said childhood adventures in Sinnissippi Park, the very same park that would eventually become the setting for his bestselling Word & Void trilogy, inspired your storytelling. Why choose a real setting for that and when/how did you decide to link the Word/Void to the world of Shannara? Did you ever think, “Nah, I should make these series totally separate” or did you always want to link them?

TB: Almost all of my books use actual settings.  I travel a lot, and Judine and I write down notes and take pictures of places that are fascinating enough to suggest possible story settings.  You have to do some extrapolating, but setting is character for fantasy writers.  Sinnissippi Park and my hometown were logical settings for Running with the Demon because I was writing about my youth and what it was like to believe in magic before that belief was taken away by exposure to reality.  I never set out to link Shannara to Word & Void.  The idea didn’t even occur to me after I had finished the first three W&V books.  It was only later on, when I decided to go back into that world and write about the future where the dreams of the Knights of the Word had come true that I sensed the possible connection.  I admit I was reticent, but my editor Betsy Mitchell encouraged me to give it a try.  I wrote maybe eight chapters and knew I was onto something.

SFFWRTCHT: One of the things our readers like to learn about is how writers write. What’s your writing time look like—grab it when you can? Specific blocks? Word count goals? Do you use special software like scrivener? Write to music? Or have other rituals?

TB: It’s changed a lot over the years.  I used to write late into the night.  Now I am brain-dead by mid-afternoon, so I write early in the morning.  Some of that is age, some of it a function of raising kids and having another job.  Lots of things interfere.  You pretty much have to write when you can, I think.  I used to be pretty driven and wrote every day.  Now, I don’t push myself quite so hard.  I’ve learned how to do more in less time.  I’ve become trusting of the process.  I don’t feel so stressed about deadlines and such.  I’ve learned how to deal with writer’s block.  Truth is, commercial fiction writers writing to deadline can’t afford writer’s block.  You just have to understand what it means when you come up against one of those beasts and what it takes to send it packing.

I am sort of like the TV character Monk.  I have to have everything in place when I sit down to write.  I only write in certain spots, and I never write on the road.  It has to be quiet.  Music is a distraction.  The sound of the ocean, however, is a blessed white noise.  Just depends on how you grew up, I think.

SFFWRTCHT: Interesting that you brought up writer’s block. With so much of your career tied to Shannara, do you ever struggle with writer’s block or get stuck coming up with ideas? How do you keep it fresh or work around issues of blocks?

TB: Here’s thing I believe to be true about writer’s block, since we are still on the subject.  It usually means one of two things has happened.  First, you are over worked.  You have spent too much time locked away in your writing space, and you need to go downstairs and reintroduce yourself to your wife and children and maybe go on a picnic.  Second, you made a wrong turn in your writing somewhere a while back, and your writer’s instincts are screaming at you to go back and find where you messed up.  You need to do this and then take a different path.

I am also an advocate of hot showers and long drives.  Seems to loosen brain cramps and other writerly ailments.

SFFWRTCHT: What are the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

TB: “Don’t quit the day job.”   In both cases.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects do you have in the works which we can look forward to?

TB: More books in the future of the Shannara world.  The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy begins publication with Wards of Faerie in August 2012, continued with Bloodfire Quest in March 2013 and ends with a third book in August 2013.  Also, an annotated Sword of Shannara, published on the 35th anniversary of the original, will be out in the fall.  Also, a series of short stories of around 10,000 words will appear as ebooks only over the next 12 months.  This is an experiment to see how much interest there is in Shannara in ebook format.  These stories will center on iconic characters such as Allanon and Garet Jax.  Eventually, the stories will become part of a hardcover book release. I will probably write something completely new, as well, over the next 5 years.  About time for that, I think.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011  Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. His first children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids releases this month from Delabarre Publishing. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.